The All Blacks have announced an unchanged match-day 23 for the second test against France in Wellington, with head coach Steve Hansen eager to explore the potential of the combinations within his squad to go to new levels on Saturday.
The final half hour at Eden Park which reaped an avalanche of points didn’t happen in isolation. It took hard work and patience to break down the French who defended with character in the first half and that obstinate attitude forced the All Blacks into mistakes.
They were always going to be a little rusty in their first test of the year.
Added to that was another factor — a relative lack of game time for five of the All Blacks pack, including skipper Sam Whitelock who, incredibly, played 80 minutes. The bottom line is that, worryingly for France, the All Blacks should be much better for it.
As game plans go, the All Blacks’ didn’t try to reinvent the wheel last weekend. They, like any team, play best when they have a clarity of purpose and thought.
At Westpac Stadium there will be an unchanged line-up, the first time in three years the All Blacks have named an identical squad in consecutive tests. But there could be more variations in terms of attack as they attempt to strike from the start.
“As we have a big focus right now on developing our game and working on our skill sets, connections and combinations, it isn’t beneficial to be making wholesale changes, if any at all, to the playing 23,” Hansen said.
“While we were really happy with the way we finished last weekend’s test, we’re fully aware that we still have a lot of work to do over the rest of the series.”
Expect the All Blacks’ pack to be more direct with the ball as they attempt to create space for a backline which thrived with the extra time and added pace provided by subs Damian McKenzie and Ngani Laumape.
Expect, too, a slightly more connected back three of Rieko Ioane, Jordie Barrett and Ben Smith.
Smith doesn’t make many mistakes so his intercepted pass which gifted Remy Grosso the first try of the game was one of the biggest surprises of the opening 40 minutes last weekend as the visitors started with a pace they couldn’t sustain.
“The French would’ve taken a lot of confidence out of their first 50 minutes on the weekend and will be coming to play on Saturday night,” Hansen said. “Therefore, it will require us to raise our game to an even higher level.
“Rather than being inhibited by this, we’ll be embracing and walking towards the challenge. We’ll be looking to play our own high energy game with real intent. When it comes to our performance, we know there are high expectations from our fans. This, in turn, demands that we drive our own expectations even higher.”
Hansen said the All Blacks were excited to be playing another test in the capital, the scene of last year’s defeat to the British and Irish Lions, the first for them at home since 2009.
It is difficult to see how the French can provide a Lions-like comeback after Warren Gatland’s men lost their first test of the series, also at Eden Park, but for the All Blacks the imperative to maintain standards will come from within.
A polished performance will add interest to the selection for the third and final test under the roof in Dunedin, where Hansen and his assistants will probably look for a slight change in personnel.
All Blacks: Jordie Barrett, Ben Smith, Anton-Lienert Brown, Ryan Crotty, Rieko Ioane, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Luke Whitelock, Sam Cane, Liam Squire, Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock (c), Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody.
Reserves: Nathan Harris, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Ofa Tuungafasi, Vaea Fifita, Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara, Damian McKenzie, Ngani Laumape.