Marc Hinton is a senior rugby writer for Stuff
OPINION: Could this be Ian Foster’s final All Blacks team? And, more to the point, how could he dare not swing for the fences with a lineup to potentially change the narrative on a team sinking faster than Donald Trump’s presidential prospects.
That is the intriguing prospect ahead of Thursday night’s (NZ time) announcement of the All Blacks to face the Springboks in the second Rugby Championship clash of 2022 at the cauldron that is Ellis Park in Johannesburg.
The word is that Foster is set to spring a few surprise selections in the wake of his team’s 26-10 defeat at Mbombela Stadium that consigned the All Blacks to a fifth loss in their last six tests and the coach most likely to scrapheap.
What have you got to lose?
New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson is hovering here in the City of Gold and it is hard to see how he is not about to light the fuse on an All Blacks coaching rebuild in a process that is surely well under way.
Maybe the “something special” that Foster defiantly suggests is brewing this week saves his job. But it is doubtful. Both that it plays out and that it will be enough to earn a reprieve. The damage has been done and it is likely Plan B has already been enacted. Or soon will be.
So, if this is Foster’s last stand, why wouldn’t he throw caution to the wind? take a chance Think outside the square. Put it this way, what he has been doing for the past year or so certainly has not been working out too well for him.
The All Blacks are not just losing, they look befuddled. The fluency and flair which has long been a hallmark of their game appears to have deserted them. They are being squeezed and pressured and, frankly, out-executed by sides who are clearly superior to them.
They have fallen to No 5 in the world, which pretty much adds up to the slippage that has occurred in the Foster era. There has been a price to pay for a succession plan of Mr Magoo proportions.
Which brings us to the side to run out at Ellis Park. What are the changes Foster could make as he looks to sign off in style or, in some unimaginable twist of this tale, avoid the executioner’s axe?
Well, it is not entirely easy to predict, especially with the unknowns around the injuries to Beauden and Jordie Barrett, and the illness of Will Jordan. The latter missed Tuesday’s training, the former seemed to be moving freely and the strapping fullback took part but appeared short of a full gallop.
Let’s start at the back. There has to be a temptation to give Jordan, if his stomach has settled, a crack at his favored fullback position. He does not have Jordie’s size and aerial capability but the All Blacks won five of 15 contestable kicks that came their way in Mbombela, so can it really get any worse? Beauden Barrett, too, could shift there in a back-to-the-future move to allow Richie Mo’unga a deserved start.
Sevu Reece hovers as an option on the wing and maybe Rieko Ioane does too if there is a midfield shakeup, which seems the most logical place for change.
The All Blacks midfield has been largely anonymous all year and there are numerous options for a refresh. Foster could run with Jordie Barrett at 12, if fit, or bring in Quinn Tupaea as a strong-running option, or even roll the dice with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
At centre, Leicester Fainga’anuku would be an intriguing pick if it was decided Ioane’s continued lack of impact necessitated a change.
Would Foster dare drop Aaron Smith at halfback? His pass from him remains slick but beyond that he is a minimal threat.
In the loose, No 6 appears the most likely change-up. Maybe Shannon Frizell comes in to add his power game from the off against that imposing Boks trio, or maybe Scott Barrett shifts back there to provide similar qualities.
If Barrett moves, Tupou Vaa’i would be worthy of a shot in the second row, with Patrick Tuipulotu also an option. Sam Whitelock surely stays on the back of much-heralded lineout and maul defense improvements.
There will almost certainly be change in jerseys 1-3, with Foster noting that he had been pleased with the work of his front row in the second spell in Mbombela. Ethan de Groot and Tyrel Lomax were the impact props then, and one or both could be in line for a promotion.
Is it time to throw Crusaders tighthead Fletcher Newell into the deep end too? As mentioned, what has Foster to lose?
You have to think Samisoni Taukei’aho deserves another crack after a strong showing at starting hooker last week. He and Ardie Savea were the best of a beaten pack.
Plenty to ponder. One thing we do know: “Foster’s imposters”, as they have been dubbed by South African media, did not get the job done last week.