All Blacks boss Steve Hansen has made twelve changes to the team that was overwhelmed by Ireland in Chicago. Will an injection of young talent and energy be enough to overcome the Italians in Rome?
With an average age of 25, and average of number of caps at 22, Steve Hansen has backed his up-and-coming stars to get the All Blacks’ northern tour back on track. He has also cannily sprinkled a few experienced players throughout the side such as Sam Cane and Israel Dagg to make sure the youthful enthusiasm is combined with match strategy.
In the forwards, lock Scott Barrett gets his chance to build on his impressive try-scoring effort off the bench against the Irish and Patrick Tuipulotu will want a more accurate showing than last week. Elliot Dixon reappears from the wilderness after impressing for the Barbarians against the Springboks, joining captain Sam Cane and the recalled Steven Luatua as the loose forwards.
In the front row, Wyatt Crockett, Codie Taylor and Charlie Faumuina all earn rare starting positions. The forwards are skilled and mobile but are they lacking the hard men like Jerome Kaino, Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick? There will be pressure on the forwards to impose themselves and gain dominance at set pieces and breakdowns after being outfoxed, and at times outmuscled, by the Irish.
The backline has an exciting, creative feel about it. Chiefs halfback and flyhalf Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Cruden will navigate and they are joined by two other Chiefs, the impressive Anton Lienert-Brown and young wunderkind Damian McKenzie at fullback.
Two Otago Highlanders, Malakai Fekitoa and Waisake Naholo will also start, and both need strong performances against Italy to lock in places against Ireland and France. Fekitoa’s performance will be especially interesting as he stated in the media this week that he feels his form has returned after some mid-season fluctuations. Fekitoa was sensational in 2014, and then seemed to gradually lose his instinctive brilliance as coaching strategy and patterns perhaps clouded his mental horizon.
Fekitoa felt a new positive energy when he added punch off the bench for the All Blacks against Australia in their 37-10 win, saying to Rugby Heaven:
‘That week I felt a different person, I guess. It showed on the field, I added more energy to the game when I got on. I started to get the ball, I felt fast on the field. That’s when I realised ‘I am back on track now.”
The All Black bench also has some intriguing selections with Brodie Retallick included as a kind of insurance cover. There are also potential debuts for hooker Liam Coltman and 19-year-old Rieko Ioane, who will cover centre and wing. When Ioane takes the field, he will become the youngest All Black since Jonah Lomu.
Hansen’s goal for Ioane against Italy is ‘work rate,’ urging the young Aucklander to ‘touch the ball a lot on attack.’ Highlanders teammates Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga will also start from the bench, and the backline as a whole has the talent to run riot against the Italians in the latter stages of the game.
We wait to see if the whizz kids will see the All Black swagger return in Rome.
The All Blacks match day 23 (with test caps in brackets):
1. Wyatt Crockett (55)
2. Codie Taylor (12)
3. Charlie Faumuina (43)
4. Patrick Tuipulotu (11)
5. Scott Barrett (1)
6. Elliot Dixon (2)
7. Sam Cane – captain (38)
8. Steven Luatua (14)
9. Tawera Kerr-Barlow (24)
10. Aaron Cruden (44)
11. Waisake Naholo (9)
12. Anton Lienert-Brown (6)
13. Malakai Fekitoa (21)
14. Israel Dagg (58)
15. Damian McKenzie (1)
16. Liam Coltman *
17. Joe Moody (21)
18. Ofa Tu’ungafasi (3)
19. Brodie Retallick (57)
20. Matt Todd (6)
21. Aaron Smith (55)
22. Lima Sopoaga (5)
23. Rieko Ioane *
Kaal Kaczmarek, Pundit Arena