If Scott Barrett’s selection in the No.6 jersey for the first Test against Ireland fills some All Blacks supporters with a certain existential dread, that’s because the last time the regular lock started at blindside flanker was when the nation was knocked out of the last World Cup by England.
Ian Foster had hinted at a surprise in terms of personnel when queried about his side’s chase for improved physicality after his squad was announced in South Auckland a couple of weeks ago but this qualifies as more than that – it’s a minor shock.
It also hints at a dissatisfaction with how the forwards have performed under Foster and assistant coach John Plumtree, both of whom are in Covid-enforced isolation this week.
For some, Barrett’s selection to start on the side of the scrum for only the second time in 49 Tests, rather than the in-form Dalton Papalii or his Blues teammate Akira Ioane, will be tangible proof of conservatism or even desperation at the start of a pivotal season one year out from the World Cup in France.
I would argue it’s on the conservative side of the spectrum at least. Ireland will bring an intense physicality to Eden Park on Saturday night that has paved the way for three wins against the All Blacks in their last five encounters, but they have never beaten the All Blacks in New Zealand, and indeed will have been in the country for only 10 days.
The last time the All Blacks lost at home was against South Africa in Wellington in 2018 – the last time at Eden Park 1994.
Is it bigger bodies or a more ruthless attitude that is required for an All Blacks’ pack dominated several times last year, most obviously against South Africa, Ireland and France? That is the question which will be asked this week because the Barrett experiment didn’t work in the 2019 World Cup semifinal in Yokohama.
Then, despite the greater size provided by Barrett, the All Blacks were beaten in the contact areas and even the lineout. It seemed like a sound idea at the time – a way of attacking England’s strength - but the execution was lacking and it finished as a flop and an unsatisfactory way for Steve Hansen’s reign to end.
Significantly, it was the introduction of Sam Cane in the second half against England which coincided with an improvement at the breakdown.
There were many reasons for the All Blacks’ struggles in Dublin and Paris on consecutive weekends last November. Skipper Cane alluded to those this week, as did Foster after the recent squad announcement in Mangere.
Tiredness after a long and difficult Covid-affected year was seen as a major factor for those two defeats (the All Blacks also lost to the Boks on the Gold Coast after narrowly beating them earlier in the Rugby Championship) but the message coming through from the All Blacks was that they were on the right track.
Now they have gone in a different direction.
There is no question about the quality or form of Barrett, who was inspired and inspirational as the Crusaders captain in their Super Rugby Pacific final win over the Blues at Eden Park recently - just what his selection represents in terms of the mindset of a management team under increasing pressure.
No matter how it is explained away - and Foster on Thursday said neither Papalii nor Ioane were 100 per cent due to respective recent appendix and foot issues - coming as it does ahead of five hugely important Tests (three at home against Ireland and two away to the Springboks), it feels like something is being defended rather than attacked, and that’s generally not the All Black way.
It feels like a shift – but back in time rather than into the future.