Injuries may dictate All Blacks changes

Highlanders and Otago back Josh Ioane takes the ball during an All Blacks training session at...
Highlanders and Otago back Josh Ioane takes the ball during an All Blacks training session at Trusts Stadium in Auckland yesterday. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Those demanding the All Blacks make mass changes in the wake of their drawn Bledisloe Cup opener are likely to be disappointed, though tweaks seem inevitable.

Injuries may yet force the All Blacks’ hand in key positions, with senior lock Sam Whitelock doubtful due to post-match headaches and Scott Barrett nearing a return from his three month toe-injury absence.

Richie Mo’unga is nursing a bruised shoulder after copping several late hits and Beauden Barrett continues to navigate a niggly Achilles injury.

Losing any of those figures would be a blow in the quest to retain the Bledisloe and right the wrongs from last week.

Injury concerns aside, fullback and midfield are expected to be positions under most scrutiny.

Prop Nepo Laulala is also likely to return after missing last week's draw for personal reasons.

‘‘We've had one test,’’ All Blacks assistant coach John Plumtree said.

‘‘We're not going to go and make wholesale changes - we’d be mad to do that.’’

It is clear the All Blacks are adamant their main failing in Wellington came at the breakdown and in the collisions. Give as good as they get on and off the ball in those areas, and the backline will hope to have much more room to move at Eden Park.

Visions for the opening Bledisloe had Barrett starting at fullback to reprise the dual playmaker combination with Mo’unga - a tactic the All Blacks believe retains major upside.

If both are fit, expect the All Blacks to stick with this plan.

Mo’unga did not enjoy a happy outing in Wellington as he was repeatedly smacked late off the ball and pressured behind slow or messy possession.

While he regularly produces class performances for the Crusaders, in 19 tests he is yet to stamp his authority on the test arena.

That is a concern for the All Blacks, but they are likely to persist with him for now.

Of all their injury concerns, Barrett has the ability to transform the All Blacks attack.

Damian McKenzie’s injection two days before the Wellington test disrupted preparations. In challenging conditions the diminutive Chiefs fullback struggled to counter the Wallabies kicking game.

No-one replaces a player of Barrett’s calibre. Two years ago at Eden Park he became the first No 10 to score four tries in a test.

That 40-12 demolition of the Wallabies is not comparable to Dave Rennie's reincarnated version, but it does demonstrate Barrett’s lethal capabilities.

In the World Cup pool victory over the Springboks last year, Barrett’s playmaking vision was evident when, from second receiver, he took a pass from Mo’unga and put the foot down to send George Bridge over for a telling try.

Such instances prove how valuable Barrett is attacking pressure off Mo’unga's shoulders in away McKenzie largely did not last weekend.

The other talking point is whether Rieko Ioane retains his starting centre role.

Setting aside the certain try Ioane blew by not grounding the ball just before halftime, he was then sucked infield defensively in the lead-up to Marika Koroibete’s second-half strike.

Defensive adjustments were the biggest challenge Ioane faced in switching from wing for his first test start at centre.

It is this area which could ultimately pave the way for the All Blacks to promote the reliable Anton Lienert-Brown to start alongside Jack Goodhue.

Ioane could, however, still have a role to play in covering midfield and the outside backs from the bench.
 

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