AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Steve Hansen won’t die wondering. The All Blacks coach has instead turned to the fountain of youth for the recipe to defeat the British & Irish Lions in Auckland and win the series 2-1.
The All Blacks unveiled a new-look backline early Thursday morning [NZT], with Ngani Laumape, Julian Savea and Jordie Barrett each handed starts at inside centre, left wing and fullback respectively. The Hurricanes trio, who each started in the Super Rugby champions 31-all draw with the Lions in Wellington a little more than a week ago, now have another shot at the tourists and the opportunity to help land the killer blow.
For Laumape and Barrett, it will be easily the biggest night of their young careers. At 24 and 20 years of age respectively, their total Test minutes do not even combine for a full Test match – with starts off the bench against Samoa [Barrett] and the Lions in Wellington [Laumape] totalling just 70 minutes.
All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster says it is “clear and obvious” that New Zealand have more to give as they prepare for a Test series decider against the British & Irish Lions.
Warren Gatland met expectations by opting for Lions continuity in third Test, says Tom Hamilton.
But this is no careless gamble from Hansen. The All Blacks coach is acutely aware of what’s on the line at Eden Park and has thus gone about exposing one area of the Lions’ game and safeguarding another of his own.
While he was far from perfect in defence in 53 minutes of the bench at Westpac Stadium last Saturday, Laumape did show glimpses of the power-running that has seen him score 14 tries in Super Rugby this season and, more recently, run for 125 metres, four clean breaks and a try when the Hurricanes drew with the tourists a few days earlier.
Laumape will be given a narrow channel to run down, one aimed straight between Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell. The Lions duo combined superbly in Wellington as the Lions backs outplayed their All Blacks counterparts but there was more than one occasion when Sexton, in particular, was easy gainline metres. Laumape can set the All Blacks up in midfield.
Jordie Barrett Phil Walter/Getty Images
If the former NRL player’s selection is about opportunity, then Jordie Barrett’s inclusion is about security – goalkicking security to be specific. Just nine months ago, Jordie was the subject of a Super Rugby Tug-O-War having been declared the hottest property in New Zealand Rugby. It has taken him merely two thirds of a Super Rugby season to prove why.
If brother Beauden has another off night from the kicking tee, then Jordie can offer a second option and one not requiring a change from the bench as has been the case with Aaron Cruden the past two Tests. But Jordie is much more than a goal-kicker, his big frame and powerful boot giving the All Blacks a valuable ball-running- and another long-kicking option alongside Israel Dagg in the back three.
And just as Laumape did for the Hurricanes against the Lions, Jordie Barrett showed no signs of nerves in the big moments. In moving into fly-half for the closing quarter, Barrett took control of the game and helped drive the Hurricanes to the brink of victory. His long cut-out pass for Wes Goosen’s try was exquisite.
Julian Savea Phil Walter/Getty Images
And then there is Julian Savea who, until Thursday morning, had perhaps been the unluckiest All Black this series. Overlooked by Hansen and the rest of the New Zealand selectors in favour of Rieko Ioane, a fresh Savea now has the chance to make his typically tackle-shredding impact on the tourists. You don’t score 46 tries in 53 Tests and become a bad player overnight and Savea will have been reminded of that over the past few weeks.
Hansen opted for Ioane’s speed and sharp feet in Auckland a fortnight ago and was rewarded with two tries; the coach will be hoping he gets a similar result from Savea’s direct running and raw power. Savea’s work under the high ball remains an issue, but it will be a risk worth taking if the winger can find the tryline – something the All Blacks failed to do in Wellington.
The Lions made changes for the second Test and they proved to be correct. New Zealand have followed that lead with a touch more daring, but they are selections that reflect what were the two major concerns from last week – a match the All Blacks lost by three points after playing with 14 men for 55 minutes.
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