The All Blacks have been battered and almost bettered on the rugby pitch by Ireland while their squad’s been depleted by injuries and potential suspensions.
The All Blacks backline being without their rock of consistency, Ben Smith, means there is a strong case for moving World Player of the Year Beauden Barrett to fullback. Will Steve Hansen roll the dice?
If Barrett does play at fullback, Aaron Cruden will take up the fly-half helm and leave Israel Dagg on the right wing to cover the expected aerial bombardment by the French. A more conservative approach would be to move Dagg to fullback and select Julian Savea and Waisake Naholo on the wings. However, the selection of the two big wingers did not work in Chicago and another spongy, shifting surface at the Stade de France will mean it is vital to have versatility and mobility amongst the backs.
The idea of Barrett inserting himself into the backline, running off the shoulder of Anton Lienert-Brown as he did from fullback in the final try against Ireland is a mouthwatering prospect. The midfield will also benefit from the likely return from injury of rock solid Ryan Crotty, meaning that the combination that proved so effective in the Rugby Championship is reunited. This selection is even more likely as Malakai Fekitoa will almost certainly receive a suspension for his clumsy high shot in the previous match.
On the left wing, Hansen faces a decision between Naholo and Savea and may opt for the former as Savea again failed to raise pulse levels in Dublin. In Savea’s favour is the psychological effect his selection may have on the French as they will no doubt remember his monstrous three-try performance in the 62-13 thrashing in the 2015 World Cup quarter-final. At halfback, the drumbeat for TJ Perenara to replace Aaron Smith has grown louder again after Smith’s nervy performance against the Irish, and Perenara’s more physical defence may be needed against a monster French pack.
Hansen will most likely keep the same pack that kept the Irish tryless in Dublin with the exception of the injured (and potentially suspended) Sam Cane. Hansen may bring Matt Todd into the starting flanker’s position and keep Ardie Savea in his favoured impact role off the bench. The impressive Liam Squire and captain Kieran Read will complete the back row, and Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock will hopefully have shaken off the 37 combined tackles they made in Dublin to front up against Les Bleus.
An improved showing by Owen Franks and especially Joe Moody means that the front row will pack down the same as in Dublin.
On the bench, there is a real prospect that Rieko Ioane may be asked to be the backline cover. If so, it would be a huge challenge for the 19-year-old star in the daunting arena of the Stade de France, particularly if the scores are close.
However, if Hansen gives Barrett license to roam at fullback, rugby fans everywhere could be in for some real joie de vivre in Paris.
Kaal Kaczmarek, Pundit Arena
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