All Blacks assistant coach John Plumtree says the All Blacks will be looking for continuity heading into Bledisloe III.
Once bitten, twice shy. All Blacks assistant coach John Plumtree has made it clear they won’t be making wholesale changes for the Rugby Championship clash against the Wallabies in Perth on Sunday.
Not even after back-to-back victories already in 2021 over the same Wallabies they will face at Optus Stadium on Sunday. Not even after a record score put up last time out in a 57-22 shellacking at Eden Park that tucked the Bledisloe Cup away for another year and gave the All Blacks the perfect start to the Rugby Championship.
The New Zealanders will, of course, be forced to make some changes. The absence of expectant dads Sam Whitelock, Aaron Smith and Richie Mo’unga from this touring party – with plenty of uncertainty around when they will be seen again – ensures that. That trio, all key senior All Blacks, started last time out at Eden Park and will have to be replaced for the next three internationals, at the least.
But last year, in similar circumstances, the All Blacks went a little crazy in the wake of their outstanding 43-5 victory over the Wallabies in Sydney and the final matchup against the same foes a week later in Brisbane, making 10 changes in total to the starting XV (eight personnel and two positional shifts).
The upshot was a shock 24-22 defeat to a Wallabies side that recognised a crack in the door and barged right through it.
Forewarned, though, is forearmed. The All Blacks only started their test buildup in Perth on Tuesday – a day later than usual with the Sunday kickoff – and Plumtree gave a strong indication in a Wednesday zoom call with New Zealand media that change would be kept to minimum this week.
“We’ve had a couple of weeks’ break, and we’d be silly to make wholesale changes because of the fact some of our players haven’t had a lot of rugby,” said the forwards coach. “Some have had a little bit of NPC. We stuck with pretty much the same group through the two Bledisloe games in New Zealand and we’ve got to be conscious of that.
“Making wholesale changes would be silly. We’ll have to make some changes, yes, but settling on combinations we’ve been using is probably the smartest thing to do right now.
“We’re away for a long period of time, and we’ve got a pretty small squad. We’re going to be relying on this group, and everyone is going to get an opportunity which is good for the players and is going to be good for us.”
So, with TJ Perenara likely to get the nod ahead of Brad Weber to start at halfback, Beauden Barrett a certainty to step back into the No 10 role he made his own post-2015 and Scott Barrett and Patrick Tuipulotu (probably in that order) set to fill the big boots of Whitelock in the second row, where else might the All Blacks look to flip a player or two?
Plumtree confirmed senior midfielder Anton Lienert-Brown was fit again, so don’t be surprised to see him back at centre and Rieko Ioane returning to the left wing. And maybe there is a switch-up at fullback where Jordie Barrett deserves a chance to stake his claim after Damian McKenzie’s preference for the first two Bledisloes.
Plumtree indicated there could well be a Barrett brothers theme to the All Blacks’ backline for Sunday.
“It’s certainly an option,” he said. “Damian McKenzie has played pretty well we feel, but Jordie is sitting there on the fringes. We know what Jordie can bring to a test match like this, and we’ve certainly talked about him as selectors. He’s good to go, looks really keen and is just dying for an opportunity.”
All Blacks assistant John Plumtree: ‘Settling on combinations we’ve been using is probably the smartest thing to do.’
Plumtree indicated Perenara had settled “seamlessly” back into the group after his late addition following his stint in Japan and made it clear he remained a compelling alternative, alongside Weber, to the world-class Smith. Fin Christie is the third No 9 in the group.
“We’ve got a very experienced halfback there, a leader, and he’ll be looking to establish the position really. While Aaron is away there’s an opportunity for both those boys to step up and own the position.
“We’re not sure if Aaron is going to be able to join us, and those three halfbacks know that. They’re going to work real hard to get the No 1 spot, so it’s a good opportunity for them. They’re all really good players in their own right, and slightly different to Aaron.”
The other enforced change the All Blacks will make for Sunday is at captain, where Ardie Savea will lead the side for the first time. Plumtree says all signs so far are the brilliant loose forward will take it all in his stride.
“It’s been fun watching him go about his business as captain this week, and just how he’s had to step up his role and take on more responsibility. It’s been really good for him. All of a sudden he’s really interested in everything that goes on, and rightly so.
“But he hasn’t changed. He’s relying on the other leaders to support him and he’s doing it the Ardie Savea way … he’s staying vocal, building into his week, focusing on what his job is and at the same time leading the team and the pack.”
That’s the All Blacks in Perth this week: the more things change, the more they stay the same.