I would rather watch an All Blacks trial

Soon enough it will be again be time for the All Blacks. It will be time for the almost unbridled positivity of the Super Rugby season to be replaced by the almost completely unjustifiable pessimism of the All Black’s fan’s perspective. Though maybe a little of that pessimism is caused by the team not matching […]

I would rather watch an All Blacks trial

Soon enough it will be again be time for the All Blacks.

It will be time for the almost unbridled positivity of the Super Rugby season to be replaced by the almost completely unjustifiable pessimism of the All Black’s fan’s perspective. Though maybe a little of that pessimism is caused by the team not matching what the individual fan thinks is best.

It will be time for All Blacks fans to moan about: the lack of perfection, killer instinct, consistency for 80 minutes, regional law interpretations etc. The 2021 Steinlager series against Fiji and Tonga will be nice to watch. Fiji and Tonga also have an open, free flowing, style of rugby.

There will no doubt be a lot of tries and some of them will be spectacular. But the games will mostly go in one direction, and that will be the problem. The old chestnut – it’s easy to look good against weaker opposition.

For example, against weaker opposition the Hurricanes were one penalty goal away from a home Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final. But in Super Rugby Aotearoa they were lucky there was no relegation.

There have been many All Black teams that have run the score up against weaker opposition.

But ultimately failed when it comes to the meaningful, high pressure, games.

This is also the reason why 2021 Steinlager series Tests will not be of much value for the All Blacks. The All Blacks will, almost certainly, win easily; and that is counterproductive, especially as the All Blacks are both testing new players, because of injury, and have lingering selection conundrums to resolve.

The All Blacks will learn little as they will not be properly tested. Things which work against weaker opposition will likely not work against the likes of South Africa or England. This is even more important as the All Blacks have not played top tier opposition since 2019.

The next World Cup is in 2023. The bones of the squad need to be set at least two years out so the squad can build continuity. To do this the All Blacks need good, hard games. Not semi structured try fests.

Could Damian McKenzie shift to halfback for the All Blacks? (Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

The 2021 Steinlager series will be good for Fiji and Tonga. They will get hard games against a top-quality opponent. The international exposure will be great for their sponsors. The players who stand out against the All Blacks will be able to ask for a pay rise from their clubs.

Part of the problem is that there is difficulty getting, well rested, top tier opposition at this time of year. The northern hemisphere sides are at the end of their season, in a good year.

This year they would have disjointed preparation thanks to Covid-19 e.g. Italy. To fix these problems this we must wait for both the international season and Covid-19 to be sorted; I’ll let you speculate as to which will be sorted first.

But there is a solution to the need of getting good opposition, at peak fitness, at this time of the year; it’s also the solution to testing combinations and new players. The solution is not a North-South game. The solution is a genuine All Black trial; ideally preceded by a Possibles versus Possibilities trial.

The Possible versus Possibilities trial would be the second best 23 versus the third best 23. The main trial could be the best from the Possibles versus Possibilities trial versus the proposed All Blacks squad.

Earn your jersey, picked on form. Or maybe the main trial could be more like a game of two and a bit halves (maybe 90-100 minutes in total).

The squad size for the main trial would be more like 30+ per side. This would allow the best to test themselves against each other. But would also allow time to try some different combinations and to give potential bolters a chance to step up.

Perhaps the biggest benefit is that these matches would produce pressure, perhaps at a higher level than a regular Test match, perhaps even the level of pressure of a World Cup knockout game. The pressure would be even greater if the resulting squad was picked largely on the trial form, rather than reputation.

Imagine the pressure on both Ritchie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett going head to head; then swap them over to see if a particular forward pack makes a difference. It will be hard to argue who is better if one is clearly outplayed, or crumbles under the pressure.

The North-South game gives some opportunity to test players against each other. But the format is too restrictive. What if the two best: 10s, halfbacks and opensides were in one team; it wouldn’t give much opportunity to see which is better.

The open format of a genuine trial would produce the situations the selectors, and public, want to see. Sam Cane (if fit) could’ve stamped his authority on the openside jersey and silence the doubters.

But with Cane injured we need to know who the next best two opensides are: Ardie Savea, Dalton Papalii, Lachlan Boshier or Billy Harmon?

I would be very interested seeing Tom Robinson face off against Scott Barrett, especially in the lineout; I think Robinson is a genuine option for the lock/blindside replacement.

Ngani Laumape could’ve shown what go forward looks like; can David Havili match that physical presence or is Leicester Fainga’anuku worth a shot? Who is the third best hooker: Asafo Aumua or Kurt Ekland?

It would be interesting seeing how: Jordie Barrett, Damian McKenzie and Will Jordan work both together and against each other; or even how McKenzie might go at halfback.

Questions need to be answered at blindside or number 8: Luke Jacobsen, Ethan Blackadder, Cullen Grace, Shannon Frizzell, Akira Ioane, Hoskins Sotutu, or even Devan Flanders.

Who is the second best halfback: Brad Weber, Mitchell Drummond, Bryn Hall or does Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi still have it? Is Josh Ioane still an option, at 10 or fullback?

One additional benefit is that it would provide recognition for players. With the demise of the Junior All Blacks one way to publicly recognise the second tier would be getting start in the main trial.

Getting a start in the main trial could stop a player from going overseas as it is a strong indication that they are perhaps only one injury away from getting a black jersey of their own and the associated pay rise.

The recognition would also apply to coaches. I would be interested to see how Scott Robertson and Clayton McMillan would go against Ian Foster and the current coaching set up.

Many would back Robertson, McMillan and the second 23 to give the first 23 a serious hurry up; or even get a boilover.

This game should be at least as marketable as the 2021 Steinlager series. I doubt a lot of northern hemisphere fans, or even Australian fans (who aren’t expatriates) will be interested. The local market in the pacific is small. The main spectator market for these Tests is New Zealand.

Sam Cane of the All Blacks looks on

Sam Cane. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

In the New Zealand market, and probably also internationally, an All Black trial(s) would be more lucrative than the 2021 Steinlager series. For example, the rugby league State of Origin series is extremely popular in New Zealand. Many part time rugby league fans would rather watch a State of Origin game than a New Zealand Warriors game.

In years to come an All Black trial could be played in the US to showcase rugby to the US market. That is the sort of thing which could generate some of the extra money the New Zealand Rugby Union needs. While building up new, super lucrative, markets.

I’m not suggesting that we leave the pacific island nations out in the cold. The remainder of the All Black eligible players, which aren’t involved in the All Blacks trial(s) would still give Fiji and Tonga a good game; and if Fiji or Tonga get a win, so much the better. A good, close, game is more useful for developing players than getting really good at restarts after giving away points.

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Some say why continue to put our players in high intensity games and risk injury. The cynic might say the All Black coaches don’t want their favourites being publicly outplayed by their direct competition.

But an All Black trial would provide the tailormade opportunity to test players in specific, high pressure, situations.

Perhaps Foster would rather play games against weaker opposition to try and get a winning percentage greater than 50 per cent for 2021?

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Tipping panel – the Final: North versus South

The Super Rugby trans-Tasman Final is upon us, and it’s a battle of the extremities, with the blue team from the top of the North Island against the blue team from the bottom of the South Island. North versus South. A real Yankee doodle dandy. I looked back at everyone’s prediction for the Finals a […]

Tipping panel – the Final: North versus South

The Super Rugby trans-Tasman Final is upon us, and it’s a battle of the extremities, with the blue team from the top of the North Island against the blue team from the bottom of the South Island.

North versus South. A real Yankee doodle dandy.

I looked back at everyone’s prediction for the Finals a few weeks ago, and none of us picked the Blues and Highlanders getting through to the last weekend of Super Rugby. But neither did you guys!

I scanned through all the comments, and I couldn’t see any Blues-Highlanders predictions there either. So at least we’re all in good company; none of us seem to know what we’re talking about.

For the Final, we’ll offering up a tip and Sure Thing as usual, along with a winning margin and a first try-scorer. Feel free to throw in your suggestions down below.

But the big question this week is whether Harry and Dan fall to opposite sides of this contest? Will we finish with an overall winner, or another tepid draw like last year?

My thanks to guys for ripping into another year of tipping, some of which was even pretty good. And personally speaking, it was great to be able to jump back in the chair late in the season, too.

Stay tuned for what we’ve got in store for the July Internationals and the last of the great rugby tours: the British and Irish Lions once again leaving the Home Nations, this time for South Africa.

LAST WEEK: Digger and The Crowd 5; Brett 4; Harry, Dan, Geoff 3.

OVERALL: Harry and Dan 55, The Crowd 53, Geoff 50, Digger 49, Brett 45.

Short and sharp this drag race of a Trans-Tasman competition has found the two most consistent sides facing off for a second chance at a 2021 trophy: the glamour of the Blues versus the graft of the Highlanders.

For me, I think the Highlanders will get across the line.

I believe they play with more cohesion and certainty around their game plan, and handle and absorb pressure better than their northern counterparts.

And along with rumours swirling around who may or may not be available for the Blues this coming weekend has me further entrenched into the Highlanders camp.

Having Aaron Smith helps too.


FIRST TRY: Kazuki Himeno

SURE THING: The Blues will continue their fine tradition set by Dan Carter by having another World Cup winner waterboy in Beauden Barrett ferreting about.

Raising our predictions for the Final from a few weeks ago rams home how far off the mark I’ve been in 2021. I had the Chiefs meeting the Crusaders in the Final, and what actually happened was the Chiefs fell in hole, and the Crusaders’ world imploded on them after winning a game by four tries.

But it was hard to be anything but impressed with the Highlanders watching them up close last week. Well, that is, once I could work out if which team was running which way in the flood of white jerseys.

And I say that because obviously, nothing about the Blues impresses me!

That said, I am really looking forward to this game. It won’t really matter if Otere Black is out of action, because the Blues scrumhalves tend to just find the nearest big bloke with a single digit coming around the corner.

If Black played for the Highlanders, Aaron Smith would knock the thermometer out of his mouth from thirty metres away off his left hand. And before Otere would even realise the ball was coming.

So two contrasting styles. Or about as contrasting as the Kiwi sides get.

TIP: Highlanders, obviously. By 7

FIRST TRY: Aaron Smith. For the Brotherhood.

SURE THING: I feel like I should be exempt from this when the Blues are playing.

Tom Robinson. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

The best player on the pitch will likely be a Highlander.

The shrieking screams of Aaron Smith are horrendous (imagine how it sounds in the close confines of an airport loo), but he is still the best scrumhalf in rugby, despite strong challenges by Faf de Klerk and Antoine Dupont.

Faf is a defensive maestro and Dupont an extra loose forward, but Smith still throws the longest, strongest, straightest passes, to the best targets, and so, he will probably keep the South Island mob in touch, for a while.

But in the end, the big bold Blue bullies will have too much: too much aggression, pace, championship pedigree, and reserves.

They will find space, and score. The Clan will score too, but not enough. Blues by 12. The bigger Ioane to dot down first.

TIP: BLUES by 12.

FIRST TRY: Akira Ioane.

Shannon Frizell of the Highlanders

Shannon Frizell. (Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

There’s only one pick this week: the Highlanders to snag an upset win in the final.

The reason? Well, it would be very boring if the two best tipsters on the panel went the same way for the final round of the season rather than allowing us to have a clear winner.

Which is to say, Aaron Smith will once again fire perfect, pinpoint passes all around the field to mastermind a victory. The Landers’ lineout will run like precision clockwork, and their team effort (with the help of Smith) will outclass the greater individual talents of the hosts.


FIRST TRY: Ash Dixon

SURE THING: After last week’s debacle, the Highlanders will be sure to avoid wearing their away kit again and therefore don a lovely shade of navy for the decider. Which is obviously very different to Auckland blue.

Aaron Smith of the Highlanders prepares to feed a scrum

(Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

In a chat after the Blues put 50 points on the Rebels in Round 1, Blues coach Leon McDonald fixed a deathly stare and explained to me how they had visited the room of mirrors, admitted their shame and disappointment at not making the SR Aotearoa final, and resolved to make up for it in this comp.

Perhaps I’m easily influenced, but it was entirely believable.

And for that reason, no matter the appeal of Aaron Smith, Jona Nareki and Liam Coltman’s second half precision, dart-like throws, plus the possible loss of the big ginger Tom, it’s redemption day for the Blues on Saturday.


FIRST TRY: Billy Harmon (who will then request a TMO review on himself and have it rubbed out)

SURE THING: The Eden Park crowd will be 8-10,000 below expectations due to fans staying at home, to ensure they don’t miss any of the cricket.

TT-FINAL Harry Brett Dan Digger Geoff The Crowd
Margin 12 7 2 12 5 ?
First try A Ioane A Smith A Dixon K Himeno B Harmon ?
Last week 3 4 3 5 3 5
Overall 67 45 57 61 55 53

Get your votes in now – The Crowd’s tips will be revealed Friday afternoon AEST.

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