All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has named three uncapped players in his team to take on Ireland in the 1st Test tomorrow. None of the selections are very surprising, with Brodie Retallick, Aaron Smith and Julian Savea all deserving their chance. So how have they earned their first caps for the best international team in the world? Let’s take a closer look at each player and the form they carry into this series.
Second-row Brodie Retallick turned 21 only a week ago. He was an integral part of the New Zealand Under 20s side who claimed a 4th successive Junior World Championship title last year. From there, the 121kg lock went straight into an ITM Championship (the level below the likes of Canterbury, where new Munster coach Rob Penney had so much success) campaign with Hawke’s Bay. Retallick played a key role as the ‘Magpies’ earned promotion to the ITM Premiership, coincidentally beating Aaron Smith’s Manawatu side in the final.
In Ireland, lack of size and strength is very often an issue with our young second-rows. That’s never been a problem for the freakish Retallick. In fact, he has actually dropped weight since his school days, where he tipped the scales at 126kg. That made him hard to get off the ground at the lineout but he has since shed a few kgs and is now superb in the air. He’s also the tallest player in New Zealand rugby at almost 6’9′. His physical readiness meant Retallick went straight into the Chiefs’ first XV in this year’s Super Rugby campaign.
The Chiefs sit top of the overall table coming into this break for the international tours. Retallick has been important to the Chiefs’ success. His work at the lineout has been impressive and his engine is huge. The 21-year-old is exceptionally fit. He recently beat Brad Thorn’s long-standing beep test record for a tight-five forward in New Zealand. That highlights Retallick’s impressive work ethic. He’s 6th in the Super Rugby tackling charts, with 169 in just 12 games.
Another of the lock’s strengths has been his work at the breakdown. Not in the sense of steals, but rather his effectiveness in cleaning out rucks during the Chiefs’ attack. Encouragingly, Retallick turned in perhaps his poorest display of the season in the Chiefs’ last match, a thrilling 41-34 win over the Blues. The 21-year-old forced a few offloads and passes and generally looked a little uncomfortable. From an Irish point of view, hopefully the added pressure of an All Blacks jersey results in something similar on Saturday.
Aaron Smith takes over in the 9 jersey. World Cup scrumhalf Piri Weepu has been struggling badly for fitness and form, but is still included on the bench. Smith is one of a number of exciting young 9s coming through in New Zealand at the moment, with TJ Perenara and Tawera Kerr-Barlow both unlucky to miss out. Smith’s form for the Highlanders means he is deserving of this chance though. His swift and accurate passing has been eye-catching, and much appreciated by the All Blacks selectors.
Back in 2008, Smith came off the bench for the New Zealand U20s as they beat England 38-3 in the final of the first-ever Junior World Championship. Following that success, he spent three seasons playing ITM rugby for Manawatu, pushing his way into the Highlanders Super Rugby squad last year, making 3 starts. However, it was the 23-year-old’s form in Manawatu’s run to that Championship final at the tail end of 2011 which really saw Smith announce himself. That convinced Highlanders coach to give Smith the starting role ahead of All Black Jimmy Cowan this year.
Smith has admitted that his focus at the start of this season had been getting starts for the Highlanders, and hadn’t even entertained the notion of an All Blacks cap. His superb performances have been one of the unchanging factors of an inconsistent Highlanders side this season. It seems like an idiotic thing to say about a scrumhalf but you’d be surprised how many don’t do it well – Smith’s main strength is his beautiful passing. He generally doesn’t offer as threatening running game that Perenara or Kerr-Barlow do. In terms of positives for Ireland, Smith is relatively inexperienced, and by his own admission, never expected to be where he will be on Saturday.
The third new cap is left wing Julian Savea of the Hurricanes. The 21-year-old has been marked out as an All Black for some time now. In 2009, at the age of 18 and fresh out of school he played for the New Zealand Sevens team. The following year his 8 tries helped the NZ U20s to the JWC and saw him named 2010’s IRB Junior Player of the Year. A brilliant ITM Cup campaign for Wellington followed, with Savea scoring 8 tries in 12 games. A full All Blacks call-up would surely have followed sooner than now, but for a poor 2011 season.
The 6’3″ winger progressed to start 7 games for the Hurricanes but was generally quiet and didn’t manage to score a Super Rugby try. An ineffective ITM campaign followed with Wellington and the buzz around Savea died a little. However, this season has seen that buzz reach new heights thanks to his spectacular form for the Hurricanes. 7 tries in 11 games doesn’t tell the whole story. When you see that he’s in the Top 10 for metres gained (817), has made 4 try assists and 8 clean line-breaks you start to get the idea.
At around 105kg, Savea is a big unit. He uses his power to great effect and regularly boshes defenders into the ground (1.14 and 2.07 in the vid below are becoming typical). However, he has neat footwork and general skills too. His Hurricanes teammate Beauden Barret has called Savea’s attacking arsenal the “triple threat“. So any signs of respite for Ireland? While the Hurricanes’ attacking game has lit up Super Rugby (they’re comfortably the top-scorers despite sitting 6th), their defence has been very poor (2nd worst in the table). Savea has been part of that weak defence, and is certainly more interested in attacking. Despite the fact that he’s a big unit, if Ireland can send some traffic down his wing, they may get some change out of the youngster.
The fact that the All Blacks have included three uncapped players does not mean that they’re putting out a weakened or experimental team. The rookies Smith, Retallick and Savea have each earned the chance to wear the famous black jersey. Still, it’s natural that Ireland will view their inexperience as a chink in the armour.