Rugby World Cup: Five burning questions ahead of the All Blacks' pool clash with Italy - Sky
The All Blacks face their challenges as they resume pool play at the Rugby World Cup in France, and an improving and ambitious Italy side next up might just be the least of them.
Ian Foster’s men played their second match of the Cup – a breezy, low-degree-of-difficulty 71-3 romp over Namibia – on September 15 (local time). They meet Italy in their third Pool A fixture in Lyon on Friday, September 29 (early Saturday NZT).
That doesn't seem a lot in terms of a gap. Two lousy weeks. But it’s an age at a World Cup when form, rhythm, momentum and such like are so vital. Especially when you throw in that over a quarter of the top lineup are yet to play at this tournament.
This pregnant pause can go one of two ways. If Foster and his coaches used that week in Bordeaux – essentially two hard-out training sessions around assorted activities not related to rugby – as smartly as they claimed, getting their faltering team back on track, and some returning frontliners up to speed, then it would have been productive.
But if there is a price to pay for the step off the World Cup treadmill in terms of fluency, then these next few weeks are going to be very interesting indeed.
The games come thick and fast now. Italy are followed just six days later by Uruguay at the same venue. The former has the potential to be awkward; the latter not so much. Nine days after that is a quarterfinal in Paris against, almost certainly, Ireland that could define their World Cup.
So here are the five burning questions hovering over the All Blacks as they step back on to the fast-track:
1. Is there any way they slip up against Italy and make more unwanted history?
Close your eyes and let your imagination run a little. A clumsy challenge, a red card, an early Italian lead, pressure mounts, penalties flow, confidence grows in the Azzurri. That’s when it could really get ugly.
But that requires luck and discipline to desert the All Blacks. Simultaneously. Much more likely is they are dialled in, on point and they take care of business against a plucky but limited Italian side with a degree of comfort.
These All Blacks are not the force they once were. But they are still far too good anywhere near their best for a side that, for all its improvement, remains well below the top tier of the global game.
If the forwards, back near full strength, muscle up, win the collisions, execute at the set piece and lay on some go-forward, this one goes only one way. The same way it has the last 16 times they’ve met.
2. What are the big selection calls for Foster this week?
There aren’t many, to be frank. A lot of Kiwis would like to see Will Jordan at fullback. But it doesn’t feel like Foster is one of them. Hard to see him abandoning Beauden Barrett at this late juncture, for all the possibilities that might entail.
So that pushes Jordan to the wing and Mark Telea to his less preferred left side. Safe. If somewhat boring.
The big question is does he bring all four of his fit-again frontliners – Sam Cane, Shannon Frizell, Jordie Barrett and Tyrel Lomax – straight back as starters? Probably. They’re all key men. They need to get their Cup campaigns under way. If they’re fit, they should run on.
The only other tough calls are at lock (that three into two equation with Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick and Scott Barrett), maybe hooker (does Codie Taylor remain starter?) and the bench which still feels like a work in progress.
Pushing Scott Barrett to the pine maybe solves two issues. It allows veterans Whitelock and Retallick to set the table in the second row, and it adds a mighty presence to a bench which has lacked impact of late. Cam Roigard is now a cert to bring the impact at 9.
3. Are they still in this World Cup race?
You bet they are. They are probably one standout performance – of which they are eminently capable – from a spot in the final.
Ireland and South Africa are quality, no doubt (their pool clash was an absolute classic, with a cigarette paper’s width in it), and France remain contenders even with the doubts hovering over their talismanic captain. But the All Blacks can topple all three on their day, and are a class above the rest.
4. Where do they need to be better?
After being outplayed by both South Africa (pre-tournament) and France (in the opener) it feels like the All Blacks are still searching for their A-game. Circumstances at Twickenham and the heat, and pressure from a quality French outfit, in Paris made both tricky match-ups.
The All Blacks need to find the balance between being smart tactically and playing to their strengths. That only happens if they get the basics right up front. They are not going to overpower the top sides at this tournament. So they must outskill them. That means giving Richie, Rieko and co the go-forward to do their thing. It feels like their only chance.
5. Rust v rest. Which prevails?
The extra week to prepare might have been manna for the ABs. It’s allowed them to get some work into those returning starters. And a tournament restart might not be a bad thing, given how it began. This feels like a launching point, if they’re good enough to take it.