And Steve Hansen will smile and wander off happy at the depth he has at pivot and the pressure that’s on his players to perform and continue to improve.
Mo’unga, you might remember, was in superb form as the Crusaders swept to another Super Rugby title while Beauden Barrett was struggling with the Hurricanes. In shades of the Andrew Mehrtens-Carlos Spencer debate, lines were drawn.
Barrett’s best days were behind him, some suggested. He should shift back to fullback, others claimed. Mo’unga should be starting against the Wallabies, his fans cried.
Hansen suggested Mo’unga was helped immensely because he was playing behind a Rolls Royce pack at the Crusaders, who are virtually the All Blacks eight. He was right and Barrett was quickly back to his best in the two tests against Australia with four tries in the win at Eden Park. But even then some were quick to say Mo’unga would’ve been just as effective against what is a pretty ordinary Wallabies team. We will find out in Nelson.
Mo’unga has all the physical skills of a world class first five and brings with that a maturity beyond his 24 years and good decision making. He struggled to assert himself with an understrength Crusaders team against the British and Irish Lions last year but shouldn’t have those issues in Nelson.
The Pumas a good side with a powerful pack and some wonderful attacking backs as they showed when they beat South Africa two weeks ago. But it would be a monumental upset if they were to beat the All Blacks in Nelson. Though Hansen has rung the changes for this historic test in the city, this is still a formidable team with a powerful pack.
There is plenty to keep an eye on. Karl Tu’inukuafe’s rise continues with his first start in his sixth test and the powerful scrummager will enjoy taking on the Pumas. Ardie Savea gets a rare start at openside and with Sam Whitelock on the bench, the incomparable Brodie Retallick is partnered by Scott Barrett while Shannon Frizell gets against crack at blindside. Size, pace and skills aplenty in the forwards then.
Though it will be his 48th test, this will be TJ Perenara’s 10th start at halfback as he continues to live in the shadow of Aaron Smith. He will relish the chance but can’t let the occasion get to him as it has at times in the past. His speed to the breakdown and in his pass will be crucial to the All Blacks success as they will again look to the tempo and intensity of their game to provide an edge.
They have plenty of firepower and it is encouraging to see the return of Nehe Milner-Skudder after his injury woes. It’s easy to forget how good he was and can be again. It’s also good to see Ben Smith at fullback and Waisake Naholo on the wing. Naholo is a match winner and one of the finest try-scorers in the game. And while Smith is a very good wing he is an even better fullback.
The challenge for this team will be to find their cohesion quickly. If they do that and the pack gives Mo’unga ball to run on to and attack with, the All Blacks should finish comfortable winners against the Pumas. And the debate about who should be the All Blacks starting first five will go up a notch.
- Jim Kayes