Following the birth of his second child, All Blacks No 8 Ardie Savea has remained in New Zealand while the rest of the squad have travelled to Australia in preparation for next weekend’s Bledisloe Cup clash.
Savea has started both of the All Blacks’ tests at the back of the scrum, alongside Sam Cane and Shannon Frizell, and will miss the upcoming match – which opens the door for a rookie to fill his boots for the fixture.
Blues No 8 Hoskins Sotutu came off the bench in the previous two matches and looms as the likely first-choice to partner Cane and Frizell, but head coach Ian Foster has revealed that’s Sotutu’s inclusion is not an open and shut case.
“He’s done the job that we’ve given him really, really well,” Foster said before the All Blacks departed to Australia this morning.
“So I guess now we’ve just got to go back and have a look and say, well do we keep him in that role or do we change a few things around?”
The All Blacks squad is laden with loose forwards. Alongside the quartet that have been used against the Wallabies, Foster also has openside flankers Dalton Papalii and Du’Plessis Kirifi as well as utilities Akira Ioane and Cullen Grace to select from.
Papalii is the most experienced of the lot and his inclusion could push captain Cane into the No 8 role while Kirifi is the most recent addition to the squad and will likely spend the next few weeks holding tackle bags as he becomes accustomed to the All Blacks environment.
Should Foster want to keep things consistent, however, then Ioane or Grace appeal as more like-for-like replacements. Both appeared for and scored tries for their provincial sides on Saturday, with Ioane’s Auckland falling to North Harbour and Grace’s Canterbury being well and truly torn apart by Bay of Plenty.
“I thought Akira was good yesterday and he’s been good in training,” Foster said of Ioane. “We’ve also been impressed with Cullen [Grace] and the quiet work that he’s going about doing. So we’ve got some nice choices.”
20-year-old Grace, with just a handful of professional caps, has been regularly released by the All Blacks this season to earn more minutes with Canterbury and would be a surprise inclusion ahead of either Sotutu or Ioane.
Sotutu’s coming of age with the Blues this season has also been recognised by captain Cane.
“He’s been fantastic, I’ve really enjoyed getting to know ‘Hos’,” Cane said. “He’s a very relaxed, casual sort of character but just from conversations and little chats we’ve had, I think he sees the game really clearly.
“He’s obviously a pretty special athlete who had an outstanding Super Rugby Aotearoa so, should he get his chance, I’m sure he’ll take it.”
Meanwhile, props Nepo Laulala and Joe Moody could both miss Saturday’s game. Laulala’s partner is due to give birth, which has prevented the new Blues signing from travelling to Australia as yet, while Moody is still recovering from the head knock he suffered against the Wallabies last weekend.
If the All Blacks score a win on Saturday, they’ll be able to lock away the Bledisloe Cup for another summer. A win to the home side, however, would keep the series alive for one more match.