Jacob Whitehead reflects on the North v South match and Ian Foster’s first All Blacks selection
North v South: Five things we learnt
It’s been an exciting few days for New Zealand rugby, with the return of the North v South game, the announcement of Ian Foster’s first All Blacks squad and, most importantly, the sheer quality of rugby on offer.
The South triumphed 38-35 thanks to a last-gasp winner – probably a fair result after the North’s controversial go-ahead score ten minutes before. There were mauled tries, back-line moves galore, opportunistic scores and aerial glory – the tone set from Caleb Clarke’s 40m break straight from kick-off.
Ian Foster’s team is in more of a transitional moment than the one Steve Hansen inherited nine years ago – so what have we learnt from Saturday’s grudge match and the squad announced early on Sunday morning?
Barrett v Mo’unga: The battle continues
The battle for the New Zealand fly-half jersey between Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga continues. Barrett had possibly the better overall game as North faced South – setting up Rieko Ioane in the game’s opening minutes, unparalleled in broken field – but Mo’unga fans may argue that Barrett’s strengths can still be utilised at 15.
Mo’unga was the top scorer in Super Rugby Aotearoa and not only made the Team of the Tournament but was named NZ Player of the Season – showing flashes of that brilliance on Saturday as he flicked a brilliant try-scoring pass to Tyrel Lomax in the second half.
On the other hand, the South’s back-line generally didn’t fire as much and he missed a key tackle on Hoskins Sotutu in the run-up to Aaron Smith’s try.
What have we learnt here? It looks as if Mo’unga has probably shown enough to hang onto the first five-eighth jersey, unless Foster decides to diverge drastically from the World Cup strategy.
Air Jordan stakes his claim –
Jordan saves his team from defeat… rises highest to score the buzzer-beater… an incredible pressure play…
This is not a direct quote from Netflix’s The Last Dance. It would be absurd to compare Michael Jordan to Will Jordan, but the latter undoubtably pulled off a Jordan moment in the final throes of the inter-island match-up.
Josh Ioane’s kick dropped perfectly on Mitchell Hunt’s head, leaving the Highlander’s man static against the onrushing Jordan, who soared highest to gently pluck the ball out of the air.
He made it look so easy – and it’s not the first time he’s scored a key game winner. Indeed, it could be argued that he sent the Super Rugby Aotearoa title the Crusaders’ way – scoring the key try against second-place Blues to win their only match-up.
He’d had a brilliant year in Super Rugby, for sure, but international rugby is a different beast – and make no mistake, the North v South match was of that ilk.
So much of the New Zealand dynamic is about the soaking up of pressure, before adapting to dominate the big moments. Jordan did this, struggling early against Caleb Clarke before making a couple of brilliant cover tackles, scoring an opportunistic first try and a velvet-smooth second. Expect to see him somewhere in the All Blacks back three for years to come.
Next All Blacks back row beginning to take shape
Kieran Read’s retirement has left quite some gap to fill in the New Zealand back row, but judging by recent performances the All Blacks shouldn’t miss him too much…
You can maybe measure the quality of a squad by the calibre of player missing out – and the omission of Tom Christie and Tom Sanders is emblematic of this. The Crusaders pair were brilliant on Saturday, with Christie emulating Neil Back’s graft and Sanders’s ball-carrying notably similar to CJ Stander. Christie in particular looks as if he’ll snap at captain Sam Cane’s heels over the next World Cup cycle.
What makes the New Zealand loose forwards so hard to predict is Ardie Savea’s versatility – he is able to cover all three back-row spots. The most likely group would see Savea and Cane on the flanks, with the eight spot seemingly boiling down to a battle between Blues pair Hoskins Sotutu and Akira Ioane.
Ioane’s redemptive tale after struggling with form is an inspiring one, but Sotutu looks to be the favourite right now. A breakout star of Super Rugby Aotearoa, his work-rate on Saturday was exceptional, while his offload for Smith’s score was the ‘wow’ moment of the game – until Jordan intervened.
Yet the All Blacks could yet field Savea at No 8 and pick the in-form but raw Shannon Frizell on the blindside, while Foster clearly rates surprise selection Cullen Grace, a 20-year old flanker who could force his way into the reckoning.
Rieko goes well at 13
Rieko Ioane sometimes gets a hard time in New Zealand and he’s been told by numerous pundits that he’s not an international centre, but he laid quite the marker at the weekend.
TJ Perenara’s Instagram story captured this – ‘He’s not a centre they said’, followed by a string of laughing emojis, after the Blues flyer scored an excellent brace of tries. One second-half-offload was reminiscent of Sonny Bill Williams.
Of course, Ioane actually began his career as a centre at schoolboy level, so what about for the All Blacks?
The competition on the wing is ridiculous – George Bridge, Sevu Reece, Will Jordan, Caleb Clarke – but with the mulletless Jack Goodhue recently shifted to inside-centre, the All Blacks midfield options look clearer. Rieko at 13 and a straight shootout between Lienert-Brown and Goodhue for the spot at second five-eighth… now what a back-line that could be.
Brad Weber is the unluckiest man in world rugby
The scrum-half was a brilliant general for the South, outshining Perenara until the Hurricanes man was replaced by Aaron Smith on the hour mark. His Chiefs team struggled in Super Rugby this year, but Weber was a standout – and he has flourished whenever he’s had a chance for the All Blacks.
The issue is that those opportunities seem few and far between with Perenara and Smith ahead of him – both in the top handful of scrum-halves worldwide.
Weber, 29, could be approaching a half-century of caps for most other top rugby nations – his paltry five for the All Blacks does not reflect his quality. It will be interesting to see if Foster gives him a chance in the year to come.
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