In Steve we trust, in Steve we trust,” we can mutter as we go about our lives leading into the All Blacks test against South Africa in Wellington. He’s named a formidable team. A 23 that has, injuries to Dane Coles and Brodie Retallick aside, the hallmarks of his top team.
But there’s no Waisake Naholo! Not on the left or right wings with Rieko Ioane and Ben Smith picked there, and not on the bench as the amazing impact of Damian McKenzie resides there. Naholo has missed out to Jordie Barrett, as he did for the three tests against France. Barrett is at fullback pushing Smith to the wing. There is nothing at all wrong with that back three. It is superb. And there is nothing at all wrong with Barrett. He is a fine player who has scored three tries in his six tests including two against France in Wellington.
At 1.96m tall he is seen as a good foil to any kicking game, with the Springboks expected to kick the logo off the ball (just as the All Blacks often do). But we all have favourites. We all have players we love seeing in black and with the ball in their hands and mine, one of mine, is Naholo.
His second try against Australia in Sydney was simply superb and he has shown with 14 tries in 22 tests that he is knows his way to the tryline. He’s also strong on defence, has a good work rate and is, like Barrett, very solid under the high ball. I’d pick him every Saturday because as good as the starting back three is without him, it’s even better when he is there.
Smith, Naholo and Ioane is, for me, the better back three but then, as Grant Fox has so often told me, my teams never have to play. And we are quibbling over two wonderful players here, either of which is going to do a good job on the weekend. As expected, Hansen has brought back his big guns with Sam Cane at openside, Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett starting at nine and 10, and Ryan Crotty over his concussion and at second five.
Anton Lienert-Brown starts at centre after strong performances from the bench and (probably) because Sonny Bill Williams has been a bit unwell this week. But he’s there ahead of Jack Goodhue who has been terrific in his starts. Perhaps Hansen feels he needs a rest, but Goodhue is young, fit and surely can keep playing. It seems odd he’s not there.
SBW’s return from the shoulder injury he suffered in the French series will be via a bench that includes Patrick Tuipulotu who was called in when Retallick was injured last week. Everything suggests the All Blacks will win in Wellington. They are (pretty much) at full strength and coming off good wins against Argentina and Australia. South Africa have lost to both those teams in consecutive tests and haven’t beaten the All Blacks since 2014 with six defeats in the interim.
Those losses included a couple of whoppers, going down 57-0 in Albany last year, 57-15 in Durban in 2016 and 41-13 in Christchurch a few weeks earlier. But Hansen will rightly point to Cape Town last year when the All Blacks escaped with a 25-24 win as evidence of what South Africa are capable of. Sure, in recent years the results have gone New Zealand’s way, but South Africa remain the one team that can match them physically and in intensity. Not always for 80 though - a problem the Springboks don’t face alone.
The All Blacks strengths are many. The skills of the forwards is generally superior to the opposition pack’s, they play with a sustained intensity and tempo most teams struggle with, and they get terrific impact off the bench. They are very hard to contain at any time, but especially as defences tire. That should be the script for Wellington this week - South Africa starting strong but unable to stay with the All Blacks who should their 58th win in their 96 test against their toughest foe. And that’s without Naholo.
- Jim Kayes
All Blacks Tours Ambassador