All Black Scott Barrett, a successful selection at blindside for the first Test win against Ireland, moved to lock for the Dunedin defeat due to Sam Whitelock’s concussion, and injured for his team’s limp performance in Wellington, is now a key player in South Africa.
Key, as in, with injured veteran lock Brodie Retallick leaving a big hole in an All Blacks’ pack which must face up to a group of experienced monster-sized Springboks at Mbombela Stadium on Sunday NZT, where does Ian Foster select him?
There may be a temptation to pick Barrett, 28, at lock alongside Whitelock to form a solid second row, with Dalton Papalii at No.6.
Foster went that way for the second Test against Ireland, albeit with Barrett partnering Retallick, when Whitelock was ruled out during the week with concussion.
But, while adding a little pace and agility, it would leave the All Blacks a little short on size against a pack containing a huge front row, experienced locks Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager, and loose forwards including skipper Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit.
Therefore, it’s likely Barrett will go back to the side of the scrum, a position that Foster clearly believes is a long-term option, with a solid unit such as Patrick Tuipulotu, called in after his sabbatical to sit on the bench in Dunedin, starting alongside Whitelock at lock.
Foster may also be weighing up whether to stay with Papalii at flanker or go with a different option such as Highlander Shannon Frizell, who has recently returned from injury.
There will likely be little subtleties, at least in the first half, from the Boks, who have recalled hooker Malcolm Marx and have a six-two forwards-backs split on the reserves bench.
They will attempt to bludgeon a team low on confidence and results into submission in the set piece and around the fringes, and the All Blacks will have a long and painful afternoon ahead of them if they can’t find improvements from the Irish series.
The two lineout drive tries the All Blacks conceded in Wellington will have been watched closely by the world champions and the first Rugby Championship encounter is looming as a massive test of the team’s resilience and new forwards assistant Jason Ryan’s coaching ability.
Despite a world-class backline, the All Blacks are in a bind and it’s largely due to their pack’s inability to win consistent quality balls on the front foot.
First-five Beauden Barrett received the ball flat-footed too often in the two defeats against Ireland, which effectively stymied the men outside him. It is rugby’s vicious circle; poor quality ball means the backs are less likely to cross the advantage line, which begets more poor quality ball and so on.
And while Brad Mooar paid the price for the team’s misfiring attack (along with forwards assistant John Plumtree), Foster, who has temporarily replaced Mooar in the role, cannot dodge responsibility for that.
The All Blacks appeared to turn up to Dunedin expecting to do what they did a week earlier in Auckland only faster, whereas in Wellington they were virtually out of the game at halftime, down as they were 22-3.
A connected Irish rush defense shouldn’t have come as a surprise to Barrett and company and yet it appeared to be just that.
It’s difficult to imagine Foster making too many changes to his backline – especially given the South Africans’ liking for high contestable kicks – which means Jordie Barrett is likely to remain at fullback and Will Jordan on the right wing, with Sevu Reece or perhaps Caleb Clarke on the left if the latter has recovered from his hamstring strain.
Either way, a more off-the-cuff attack would be helpful, particularly one featuring the in-form Jordan more often. Failing that, strategies for creating time and space off phase play would not only be helpful but also novel.
The bottom line for the All Blacks is that tinkering with selections now is unlikely to make a huge difference against a South African team which is formidable but not without its flaws, as it showed in the 2-1 series win over Wales recently.
The All Blacks will need size and strength up front but they also need new ideas; new ideas in terms of defusing the Boks’ renowned rolling maul, and new ideas on attack because more of the same may lead to Foster’s position becoming untenable.
Foster is set to name his team for the first Test on Thursday night (NZ time).