All Blacks coach Ian Foster has rolled the dice on a couple of big changes for the first of two Rugby Championship Tests against the Springboks in South Africa, with hooker Codie Taylor, prop Nepo Laulala, loose forward Dalton Papalii and wing Sevu Reece high-profile absentees from the match-day squad.
None of the quartet are involved in the Test at Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit on Sunday morning NZT, with Samisoni Taukei’aho starting at hooker and Dane Coles on the bench, Akira Ioane starting at blindside flanker and Caleb Clarke returning from a hamstring injury to the left wing.
Scott Barrett replaces the injured Brodie Retallick at lock, with Shannon Frizell back from injury to provide loose forward cover on the bench. It means Foster has resisted the temptation to select Barrett in the No.6 jersey, with Ioane retaining his position after a good recent Test in Wellington.
There is no room for Patrick Tuipulotu, either, with Tupou Vaa'i named as the lock cover on the bench. Also absent are prop Aidan Ross, midfielder Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and halfback Folau Fakatava.
Tighthead prop Angus Ta’avao returns from his red card suspension to start in the No.3 jersey, with Finlay Christie the halfback cover.
Recalled prop Ethan de Groot is in line to play his fifth Test off the bench, with Tyrel Lomax the other prop cover. Neither player has featured in a Test this year.
The overwhelming impression is that this is a pack relatively high on pace and low on size – a gamble for the under-pressure Foster given the size, strength and experience of the Springboks’ pack.
The only change to the backline from the third Test loss to Ireland in Wellington is a return of Blues wing Clarke, who has played no rugby since May.
That in itself will be seen as a risky selection given this is Clarke’s first Test since 2020 and the fact there is no specialist outside back cover on the bench, although presumably centre Rieko Ioane could move there if required, with Quinn Tupaea a midfield reserve.
"It’s always an exciting tournament to be part of,” Foster said in a statement. “This year’s draw means we have a massive challenge of two games here in the South Africa.
“We have settled in well in Mbombela and are preparing for what is always an intense game against our old foe.
“Many of our squad are here in South Africa for the first time. This gives us another opportunity to add new experiences and grow our game.”
The trouble for Foster, who has a new forwards assistant in Jason Ryan and has recently said goodbye to attack coach Brad Mooar and forwards specialist John Plumtree, is that the bottom line for the All Blacks after their historic series defeat to Ireland is a good result on Sunday and a week later at Ellis Park.
And after naming what appears to be a fairly lightweight pack against the super-sized South Africans, the sceptics will not be easily convinced.
All Blacks match-day 23 for the first Test against the Springboks at Mbombela Stadium on Sunday, kick-off 3.05am NZT is (Test caps in brackets):
1. George Bower (14)
2. Samisoni Taukei’aho (11)
3. Angus Ta’avao (22)
4. Sam Whitelock (134)
5. Scott Barrett (50)
6. Akira Ioane (14)
7. Sam Cane © (80)
8. Ardie Savea (62)
9. Aaron Smith (105)
10. Beauden Barrett (104)
11. Caleb Clarke (5)
12. David Havili (16)
13. Rieko Ioane (50)
14. Will Jordan (15)
15. Jordie Barrett (39)
16. Dane Coles (81)
17. Ethan de Groot (4)
18. Tyrel Lomax (14)
19. Tupou Vaa’i (12)
20. Shannon Frizell (17)
21. Finlay Christie (6)
22. Richie Mo’unga (35)
23. Quinn Tupaea (9)