All Blacks under pressure to improve in 3rd test vs. France
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 Rugby 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.
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 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 backup to first-choice No. 10 Beauden Barrett. Barrett will miss the 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 OK. 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 back row is makeshift. Shannon Frizell will debut on the blindside in place of injured Liam Squire and after only a handful of Super Rugby matches. Ardie Savea will make a rare start at openside, and Luke Whitelock will play again at No. 8. The New Zealand back row 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 Rugby 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 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 trails only 2-0 in the series because of harsh refereeing decisions: A yellow card in the first test and a red card in the second. Flanker 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 the same this weekend."