Now that the All Blacks have named their squad and are about to begin their tour of the Northern Hemisphere, it is time for them to answer a few questions. While their defeat to the Wallabies last weekend raised several issues in itself, there have been areas of their game that have become obvious question marks throughout the Rugby Championship, Here are four they need to answer while in Europe.
Can the All Blacks function well without Brodie Retallick?
Second rower Brodie Retallick is a very important cog in the All Blacks machine. He provides physicality at the breakdown, offers positive carries in attack, is very comfortable standing at first receiver, and is a ferocious defender. He is a big loss for New Zealand and it is no surprise that the All Blacks struggle to win without him. The 26-year-old did not feature in two of the last three losses that the All Blacks suffered and no one will forget how they were losing every collision against the Springboks in Newlands. Retallick is their go-to man when physicality is needed as he is so consistent in his role. The pressure will be on Scott Barrett to step up to the plate and play the role Retallick has made his own over the last few seasons.
Can the All Blacks develop their midfield options?
The All Blacks midfield, and in particular Sonny Bill Williams, have been on the receiving end of more criticism than you might expect for a team that wins far more often than they lose. This has only increased after their surprising loss to Australia in the final Bledisloe Cup Test.
Criticism has been aimed at SBW and certain elements of his attacking game, particularly his orthodox passing ability, running lines, and handling under pressure though much of the criticism is overblown, one has to wonder what would happen if New Zealand’s preferred partnership or Williams and Ryan Crotty were to suffer injury and who would step in to deputise for them.
Including Jack Goodhue in the squad will no doubt add an extra dimension to their midfield, but the question is can he operate at both inside and outside centre at the highest level? Ngani Laumape still needs to develop parts of his game even though in terms of line breaking and finishing ability he is the closest the All Blacks midfield has to exhibit those traits since Ma’a Nonu in his pomp. Anton Lienert-Brown has proven himself capable of filling in at outside centre, but is he good enough to take over a game if needed? It will be important for the Kiwis to use this tour to build good and balanced depth in their midfield.
Who will provide cover at fly-half?
Though Lima Sopoaga is the current understudy for Beauden Barrett, the more pertinent question is who will be his understudy going into 2018 and then the 2019 World Cup? While last weekend’s performance wasn’t memorable for all the right reasons, Sopoaga has proven he can perform at the highest level frequently, so his position in the pecking order at fly-half isn’t under much threat despite a subpar performance against the Wallabies last weekend.
The concern lies in who will take that third choice spot. Though the seemingly obvious choice is Damian McKenzie as he seems to be being groomed for the role. Richie Mo’unga has had a great 2017 and earned himself a call-up, albeit temporarily to join the touring squad. How well he integrates into the environment and handles any opportunity should it present itself will be crucial in providing the answer to this question.
Can the All Blacks unlock a tight Northen Hemisphere defensive system?
We saw how the All Blacks were confronted by an almost watertight defensive system when they faced the British and Irish Lions earlier this year. This autumn they will face a Welsh team which had a very large presence in that Lions squad and will be using that very same system. It will be interesting to see if New Zealand’s brain trust have figured out a way to unlock this system and it will have long-term implications in the grander scheme of things when looking at the World Cup if they have not.
If they can figure out a way through this defensive system, they will pose an altogether different threat and have the Northern Hemisphere teams running back to the drawing board to prepare a new solution for their attack.
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