Speaking to media on Monday, All Blacks first-five Beauden Barrett confirmed that Will Jordan, Jack Goodhue and David Havili, as well as defence coach Scott McLeod, are all back with the squad after being struck down with Covid last week.
As such, all three players were unavailable for selection as the All Blacks romped to a 42-19 victory at Eden Park in Auckland two days ago.
That result sets up a tantalising encounter under the roof of Forsyth Barr Stadium this Saturday, of which Ireland must win in order to keep their hopes of a series win alive.
However, Ireland’s challenge of bouncing back to beat the All Blacks will be made tougher by the imminent returns of Jordan, Goodhue and Havili, all of whom Barrett was pleased to see back in action.
“They’re back, and it’s great to see them back. It was a tough week for those individuals, but we’re back to full-strength, almost, and it’s great to have them,” Barrett said of the Crusaders trio.
“It just means that we can have a really good training week. That’s guaranteed. Last week, we were a little bit down on numbers and had to bring people in, and obviously it brings more experience having Jack, Davey and Will back in the squad.
“It’s great for us, so it’s competitive. Who knows, when it comes to selection, who will be out there, but I know everyone’s keen as to get their opportunity.”
As Barrett alluded to, whether any one of Jordan, Goodhue or Havili are fit enough to be picked in the immediate aftermath of their Covid diagnosis remains to be seen.
Even if they are available for selection, all three players face competition from teammates who starred against Ireland last weekend.
Jordan is the likeliest to start if he is free to play, although All Blacks captain Sam Cane said last week that the 2021 World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year isn’t likely to feature until next week’s third test in Wellington.
The All Blacks are bracing for a strong response from Ireland after putting them to the sword in the opening match of their three-test series on Saturday.
All four players, as well as the uncapped Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, are in the running for game time throughout the series, but Tupaea and Ioane strengthened their cases for selection this week with a pair of impressive performances last weekend.
Tupaea’s physical approach to the game was on full show in a try-scoring appearance at second-five, while Ioane’s defensive presence at centre was reflective of his continual growth in that position since his full-time switch from wing a few years ago.
Therefore, it may be that All Blacks head coach Ian Foster opts to retain Tupaea and Ioane as his primary midfield combination.
In saying that, though, Barrett revealed that the All Blacks have identified some key shortcomings from their first-up win that will need to be addressed leading into this week’s rematch, and that could force some selection changes.
“We want to take our game to another level. We’ve already identified many areas to get better in,” Barrett said.
“Obviously there were some missed opportunities out there on the weekend. Although it was our first go at it, we’d like to improve a lot.”
While Barrett didn’t highlight which areas those improvements needed to be made, Tupaea said post-match on Saturday that the All Blacks needed to raise the bar with their ruck defence heading into the second test.
“We just need to tighten up a bit around our hard D around our rucks. That’s where they’ll get us. Their backs swing from side to side quite well and it’s pretty hard to defend at times,” Tupaea said at the time.
Only time will tell what shape the All Blacks will take this weekend with ruck defence being one of their key concerns in the wake of their victory, but, if anything is certain, it’s that Ireland won’t go down without a fight in the series-decider.
“I’d expect them to bounce back,” Barrett said when asked what to expect of Ireland this weekend.
“They’re such a proud side and they’ll raise their intent again this week because I guess it is do-or-die, the series is on the line this weekend, and we know that they’re coming and we also need to rise as well.
“There’s a lot to learn about the game itself and we’re doing that in these couple of days and getting prepared for a brutal test match.”
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