Wellington - Though they have already won the three-Test
series, the All Blacks will find themselves under extraordinary pressure in the
final Test against France at Dunedin on Saturday.
Only a year out from a World Cup New Zealand will try to win
for the third straight time, the All Blacks' selections, tactics and
performance are beginning to look increasingly haphazard.
Head coach Steve Hansen has one of the best records of any
coach in professional sport, 75 wins in 84 matches, but he may risk losing
public confidence unless the All Blacks show improvement or at least
consistency in all of those areas.
Selection is becoming the greatest test of Hansen's tenure.
The team he has named for Saturday's Test is experimental; if it produces a
good performance, Hansen will justly be credited with foresight but if it
doesn't and France again stretches or even beats New Zealand, Hansen will have
some explaining to do.
The team has a vulnerable look; combinations in several
areas are untested. The backline has potential but has members who haven't
played in concert before. If it fails under the defensive pressure France will
inevitably apply, the result could be an embarrassing defeat.
Damian McKenzie, a fullback, will start a test for the first
time at flyhalf as Hansen and his fellow selectors continue a pet project to
turn the small but talented player into a back-up to first choice No 10 Beauden
Barrett will miss Saturday's match with concussion and that gives
Hansen an excuse to allow McKenzie his first full match in the No 10 jersey.
"Damian's coming along nicely," Hansen said.
"He came on (in the second Test) and had a good stint at first-five and he
did okay. He didn't set the world on fire, the whole team didn't."
Outside McKenzie, Jack Goodhue will make a Test debut at
center in an untried combination with Sonny Bill Williams who is playing his
first Test this season.
Hansen has retained the tight five which started the first
two Tests but hasn't performed well. Veteran prop Owen Franks, especially,
looks under pressure after a season limited by injury and suspension.
The backrow is makeshift. Shannon Frizell will debut on the
blindside in place of injured Liam Squire and after only a handful of Super
Ardie Savea will make a rare start at openside and Luke Whitelock
will play again at No 8. The New Zealand backrow was outplayed in the second Test
and the new combination seems brittle.
Hansen says the selection of four new caps, unprecedented in
his tenure, is to Test New Zealand's depth ahead of the World Cup. But there is
an arbitrary element to his selection policy.
This week winger Julian Savea quit New Zealand rugby, ending
a career in which he scored 46 tries in 54 tests. Despite that record he has
played only two Tests in the last two seasons and joins an exodus of players
discarded or overlooked by Hansen.
On-field leadership is another major issue. Injured captain
Keiran Read is an uncharismatic leader and his stand-in, lock Sam Whitelock, is
not inspirational. The All Blacks looked lost and their decision-making was
poor when tested by France last week.
France has good cause to claim it only trails 2-0 in the
series because of harsh refereeing decisions: a yellow card in the first test
and a red card in the second. Flank Bernard Le Roux said France also felt
disrespected by the focus on the All Blacks' perceived failures.
"It's not that they were bad - they're the best team in
the world," he said. "They gave it all and we gave it all, it was a
tough game and that will be same this weekend."
15 Ben Smith, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Damian McKenzie, 9 Aaron Smith; 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Sam Whitelock (captain), 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody
Substitutes: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Karl Tu'inukuafe, 18 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 19 Jackson Hemopo, 20 Matt Todd, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Richie Mo'unga, 23 Jordie Barrett
15 Benjamin Fall, 14 Teddy Thomas, 13 Remi Lamerat, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Gael Fickou, 10 Anthony Belleau, 9 Morgan Parra (captain), 8 Kevin Gourdon, 7 Kelian Galletier, 6 Mathieu Babillot, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Bernard Le Roux, 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Camille Chat, 1 Dany Priso
Substitutes: 16 Adrien Pelissie, 17 Cyril Baille, 18 Cedate Gomes Sa, 19 Felix Lambey, 20 Alexandre Lapandry, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Jules Plisson, 23 Maxime Medard