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Why the 2021 edition of Bledisloe III is a different beast

Gregor Paul

If the All Blacks are to achieve their goal this year of returning to the top of the world rankings, then never has it been so important for them to hit the ground running as it were.

They have arrived in Australia to begin what will be the longest tour of the professional age which will see them play 10 tests in total – five in Australia, one in the USA, one in the UK, and one each in Ireland, Italy and France.

It will be an epic three months, made all the harder by the fact the 10 tests are split into two blocs where they will play five weeks consecutively. And that’s before we factor in the other issues that are making life interesting.

The first is that none of Sam Whitelock, Aaron Smith nor Richie Mo’unga flew to Perth with the squad as all three are having babies.

The All Blacks’ first-choice halves pairing will likely be out of commission for the next month. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

In normal circumstances, they would rejoin the group a few days after their respective births and most likely miss just the one test if everything went to plan.

But these are not normal circumstances. Once they are ready, they will fly to Queensland where they will have to endure a hard 14-day quarantine, leaving All Blacks head coach Ian Foster unsure when all three might become available.

“I’d be surprised if it wasn’t three,” said All Blacks coach Ian Foster to the question of how many tests those three players are likely to miss.

“But I don’t want to say too much beyond that because we don’t want to put any expectation or pressure on family. They have to do what they have got to do and we can’t do anything about quarantine either. 

“So whatever time babies arrive, you add another two weeks of quarantine on top and then maybe another week to get them conditioned again, so pretty extraordinary times.”

Those three have been the All Blacks’ best and most consistent performers this year and two of them – Whitelock and Smith – have captained the team in the absence of the injured Sam Cane.

The All Blacks are blessed with an inordinate number of good players but there is no question that not having Whitelock, Smith and Mo’unga available for a while is a terrific blow. 

Those three have been the All Blacks’ best and most consistent performers this year and two of them – Whitelock and Smith – have captained the team in the absence of the injured Sam Cane.

An impossibly tough tour is going to have to begin with a new, untried captain in Ardie Savea. He won the post ahead of other candidates such as Codie Taylor, Scott Barrett, Brodie Retallick and Beauden Barrett.

By a process of elimination, the job ended up with Savea. Taylor has been in brilliant form all year and shown himself to be a good leader at the Crusaders, but as a hooker, he won’t necessarily be on the field for the full 80 minutes and that has previously been a non-negotiable requirement for an All Blacks captain in the past.

Scott Barrett is another good, emerging leader but he remains prone to the odd moment of hot-headedness – as was seen in Brisbane last year when he earned a yellow card for an impetuous and silly decision to slap the ball out of Nic White’s hands late in the game.

Scott Barrett was sin-binned in the All Blacks loss to the Wallabies in 2020, and was sent off in the 2019 defeat. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Retallick has little provincial or Super Rugby experience as a captain, only co-leading the Chiefs for a handful of games in 2019, while Beauden Barrett probably doesn’t need any additional pressure heaped on him as he is going to be afforded his first extended run in the No 10 jersey since vacating it in 2019 when he was switched to fullback.

“You don’t need to be Einstein to know there is a nice window of time for him now and that is great. We always knew that Richie was going to miss a couple of tests around this time,” said Foster. 

“I was really pleased with Beaudy off the bench at Eden Park. He looked to me like he’s in good form and he’s been training really well.

“He’s been hanging out for an opportunity but what I love about him is that he has been contributing heavily behind the scenes in the role that he has been given. He is going to have a nice little window of time to get back into the saddle.”

To be able to replace Mo’unga with Barrett is a luxury every coach in the world game would love to have and it means the All Blacks will have a world-class play-maker at No 10, despite losing their first-choice world-class option.

They become the figurehead of the leadership group and the spokesperson so there is a lot of on-field situations where they have to reflect the calmness of our team to the decisions that we make.

Ian Foster on the importance of captaincy

In Scott Barrett, Retallick and Patrick Tuipulotu they have ample talent to cope without having Whitelock available and between those three, Taylor and Lienert-Brown, there is a core leadership group that can provide strong support for Savea as captain.

 “It has been an eventful 12 months for captains. Obviously we went with Sam Cane and then he had his injury. Sam Whitelock has come in and done a fantastic job and we have also had Aaron Smith this year. 

“It has tested our depth in that regard but we have a lot of confidence in our leadership plan,” said Foster.

“I think it is really important because they become the figurehead of the leadership group and the spokesperson so there is a lot of on-field situations where they have to reflect the calmness of our team to the decisions that we make.”

The question the All Blacks can’t be sure they can answer just yet is whether they can play as well without Smith in the No 9 jersey. The veteran halfback has been in the form of his life this year and the gap between him and both Brad Weber and TJ Perenara is substantial.

Who the All Blacks opt to run at No 9 in Aaron Smith’s absence could be telling for the future. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

One of them, though, is going to have to find their feet quickly and deliver something close to the accuracy of Smith and enable the All Blacks to play their usual fast, sweeping game. 

And they have to do it immediately because if the All Blacks are to build momentum on this tour, grow in confidence and belief, they need to start their 10-test run with a solid performance and convincing victory.

Momentum will be everything, something they found out last year. After a slow start to their test season which saw them draw with the Wallabies in Wellington, the All Blacks shifted into a higher gear and blew them away in Auckland and then Sydney to retain the Bledisloe.

They were chugging along ever so nicely until they opted to make significant changes to their starting line-up for the fourth and final Bledisloe Cup test.

They made eight changes from the week before – the 43-5 demolition in Sydney – played without cohesion or authority and lost 24-22. 

The All Blacks learned the hard way that it is vital to transition effectively out of playing Australia into the next phase of the Rugby Championship against Argentina.

They reverted mostly to the team that had started in Sydney for the game that followed the loss in Brisbane and ended up losing that one to the Pumas in a performance that was disjointed and bumbling.

Two defeats in two tests and the pressure intensified in a way it hasn’t for more than a decade. Not since 2011 had the All Blacks lost two in a row and plenty of questions came about whether the coaching group and the players were up to it.

The All Blacks learned the hard way that it is vital to transition effectively out of playing Australia into the next phase of the Rugby Championship against Argentina.

And what they also learned is that they have to make a major mental transition in how they view the final test of the year against the Wallabies. 

Historically the All Blacks and Wallabies have played their final Bledisloe test at the end of the Rugby Championship.

Sam Whitelock
In last year’s historic victory, Argentina shocked New Zealand with their game plan and ferocity in the tackle. (Photo by David Gray/Getty Images)

As a consequence, there have been seven Bledisloe tests in the last 11 years when the trophy has not been up for grabs and therefore there has been ‘nothing’ on the line when the two teams have met. 

The All Blacks have won four and drawn one of those games – a record that is considerably worse than their overall Bledisloe performance. 

Last year, like this, has seen the ‘additional’ Bledisloe played before the Rugby Championship and that has changed things dramatically – something the All Blacks were slow to realise last year.

They learned that it was a mistake to view this coming game as the third Bledisloe test of the year. Instead, they have to view it as the second Rugby Championship test.

In the past, defeat in the final Bledisloe has cost the All Blacks nothing but a little bit of pride. But if they lose in Perth, it will leave them scrambling to catch the Springboks in the Rugby Championship and put more pressure on them.

This coming game is, therefore, not a dead rubber by any definition and the All Blacks understand this in 2021 a lot better than they did in 2020.

They understand that they can’t afford a similar mid-season derailment this year and so victory in Perth is imperative to enable them to generate the confidence and momentum that will be needed to face the Pumas and Boks four times in four weeks.

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