Test's against South Africa aren't exactly a place for those we want to keep in cotton wool, but we are once again seeing Shag juggle the desire to protect a few of his players and give game time to blokes who need it. I don't know about ya'll but Shag has given me no reason not to trust him, in fact he's done the opposite and there's no person in Aotearoa who I would trust more to deal with this juggling act, than Shag.
As you may have seen, Lima Sopoaga and James Broadhurst get debuts. If you missed it, you have been posted under a rock because I don't think I have ever seen a more over-the-top celebration of two debutants in my life. This is nothing against Sopoaga nor Broadhurst, who have obviously impressed the coaches enough to warrant selection, but it does feel like we are overreacting a bit given the context of this Test and the context of the upcoming World Cup.
The door is open for Sopoaga to overtake Beauden Barrett, which doesn't mean the Sopoaga is better than Barrett. Sopoaga is closer to Carter's style where he'll run the ball when needed and it is usually needed at some stage to draw a few defenders in and to keep them honest, while Sopoaga, like Carter prefers to either kick from the pocket or shovel the ball wider with efficiency. Barrett, well he's our trump-card in my mind who will come off the bench and provide all sorts of x-factor because that's what he does.
Should something happen to Carter, I can see Sopoaga getting a start and Barrett coming off the bench, but I'm not convinced that this will happen. It's just Sopoaga's best chance of moving from the third-best 10 to the second-best, at the moment Sopoaga is very much the third-best, hence the overreactions.
Broadhurst, well he's in a similar spot and it would have been vastly unfair on Luke Romano to send him to South Africa to get smashed after his efforts against Samoa and Argentina. I'm not convinced that Shag has Broadhurst ahead of Sam Whitelock either, an example of how local folks aren't quite giving context the respect it deserves - just because Sopoaga and Broadhurst are starting over Barrett and Whitelock who are both on the bench, doesn't mean that they are ahead of them in the pecking order.
You can't take that cotton wool theory too far though which is where the juggling comes in because the All Blacks still want to win these games and there are blokes who need to experience this level of intensity. Having Ben Smith, Conrad Smith and Aaron Smith included brings back three of our best-15 team members, but in Ben's case, it only served to fire up those who view him as a better fullback than Israel Dagg.
That may be the case, but, we are going to get our first look of 2015 at the combination that is Dagg and Ben Smith. I believe that having both these blokes on the field at the same time is far more beneficial than having one start at fullback and one sit on the bench, with that being the case, Ben's skillset means he has to play on the wing. But this gives the All Blacks a nice edge, a bit of variety as we could see Ben get involved in funky ways - he won't be consigned to staying out on his wing. His ability under the high ball and kicking game could be used in conjunction with Dagg's and we could even see Ben slide back and give the All Blacks two fullbacks. Shag could also just keep Ben on ice out on the wing and not show all his tricks just yet, but we'll keep tabs on this.
A low key selection of interest has been Charles Piutau who is set for his third straight start. This should see Piutau emerge as our third-best winger behind Ben Smith and Julian Savea.
I know Conrad Smith will be shown all the faith in the world, but what's if he doesn't quite offer the same impact as Sonny Bill Williams? Just an idea.
The major selection conundrum in the forwards, which we get our first look at has Liam Messam starting in the 6 jersey. Jerome Kaino has been kept at home and Messam has been given the first opportunity to make his case to be Kaino's back up, which comes against a rugged South African pack. Victor Vito is on the bench and there are only really two spots in the World Cup squad up for grabs in this position, Kaino's locked in for one of them.
South Africa showed against Australia that they aren't too bothered about results right now, while the All Blacks are doing a bit of juggling which makes the result of this game specifically not so important. Our media will get into the nooks and crannies excessively, but I don't think we are going to see either team really show what their intentions will be come World Cup time. That being said, there are individual performances to watch out for and they are worthy of plenty of attention.
New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Charles Piutau, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Liam Messsam, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Tony Woodcock
Replacements: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Ben Franks, 19 Sam Whitelock, 20 Victor Vito, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Malakai Fekitoa
And let's all collectively cringe at Fitzy...
South Africa will ask many intriguing questions of the All Blacks in this game, notably with their front-row which looks to be their strongest trio. Jannie and Bismarck du Plessis along with The Beast Tendai Mtawarira showed how good they are against Australia, not so much in what they did but what they didn't do as they were subbed off my Heyneke Meyer which gave Australia a helping hand at scrum time.
The inclusion of Heinrich Brussow will give South Africa a nice threat at the breakdown and this battle between the South African back row and that of the All Blacks will be hugely entertaining. Argentina struggled to get to the breakdown half the time last week, let alone make it a contest and South Africa should pose a far greater threat here. The big question for is whether they can enjoy success, either way, I expect them to compete hard for the ball and put the likes of Richie McCaw and Liam Messam under pressure because at the very least it will allow South Africa a look at how the All Blacks go about their business in a highly-physical contest.
A lot has been made about the maul, but I'm not 100 percent sure that South Africa will exploit this area as much as people think. A lot of this has to do with a general theme throughout the Rugby Championship - not showing all your cards just yet, but it also has something to do with their backline. There's no Victor Matfield but Eben Etzebeth is a good young lock and South Africa will still probably be good enough to win their own lineout ball crisply, which could allow their backline the opportunity to enjoy some action.
I haven't seen a South African backline that excites me as much as this one, but they did get it slightly wrong against Australia and gave Israel Folau too much ball. The likes of Willie le Roux and Handre Pollard have to be much smart with their kicking games against the All Blacks, but it would also be nice to see them run the ball a bit more and get their midfield of Jesse Kriel and Damian de Allende plenty of opportunities.
South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Schalk Burger, 7 Francois Louw, 6 Heinrich Brüssow, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Flip van der Merwe, 20 Warren Whiteley, 21 Cobus Reinach, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Lionel Mapoe.
The Wallabies will play Argentina in Argentina and they have re-shuffled their backline which will only confuse matters for Shag and other prying eyes. Matt Toomua, Bernard Foley and Nick Phipps form a new play-making nucleus and I wouldn't be surprised, after what we saw last week if this turns out to be their best combo in these positions.
Michael Cheika has also, rather wisely refrained from starting with David Pocock and Michael Hooper, this time starting with Pocock. My belief is that Cheika will play Pocock and Hooper in the World Cup a lot, but this gives Ben McCalman a chance at number 8 and it'll be interesting to see how he goes against the Argentinians.
They struggled against the South African scrum for most of that game and we get a new front-row combo this week as Greg Holmes steps in for Sekope Kepu. The Wallabies scrum will be an ongoing thing to watch over the Rugby Championship and if Holmes can show that he strengthens their scrum, then it would be hard to argue with this combination.
Last week the Wallabies went sideways far too much - could Joe Tomane offer the power running to straighten up their attack? I think that could be the case, but only because Toomua is also starting and he has shown that he's a very capable ball-runner, compared to Matt Giteau who preferred to shovel the ball our wider.
Australia: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Matt Toomua, 11 Joe Tomane, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 David Pocock, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Will Skelton, 3 Greg Holmes, 2 Stephen Moore (c), 1 James Slipper
Replacements: 16 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17 Scott Sio, 18 Sekope Kepu, 19 Dean Mumm, 20 Michael Hooper, 21 Nic White, 22 Quade Cooper, 23 Kurtley Beale
I'm still in the dark about Argentina, but here's their squad to play the Wallabies with a few new faces/names...
Argentina: 15 Santiago Cordero, 14 Gonzalo Camacho, 13 Matías Moroni, 12 Juan Pablo Socino, 11 Juan Imhoff, 10 Nicolás Sánchez, 9 Martín Landajo, 8 Facundo Isa, 7 Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe, 6 Javier Ortega Desio, 5 Tomás Lavanini, 4 Manuel Carizza, 3 Ramiro Herrera, 2 Agustín Creevy (c), 1 Marcos Ayerza.
Replacements: 16 Santiago Iglesias Valdez, 17 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, 18 Matías Díaz, 19 Matías Alemanno, 20 Leonardo Senatore, 21 Tomás Cubelli, 22 Santiago González Iglesias, 23 Lucas González Amorosino.
The Pacific Nations Cup rolls on and this week we have Fiji vs Samoa, Canada vs Tonga and the USA hosting Japan. Fiji, Japan and Samoa all have wins under their belts which makes the Fiji vs Samoa clash the one to watch while it will also be very interesting to see how Japan go against the USA.