At times, even a polished outfit like the All Blacks can get it wrong. When the team was picked for the game against Argentina on Saturday, a number of second choice players were chosen, in order to get them match-ready and also to establish the depth that the team will need as it builds towards the next World Cup in Japan in 2019.
The major change was the presence of Richie Mo’unga as standoff, taking over from the man acknowledged as the best at that position, Beauden Barrett. Thus, there was tremendous pressure of Mo’unga, more so given that Barrett had put in an excellent performance in the previous outing, against Australia, dominating the game and scoring 30 of the team’s 40 points.
This was Mo’unga’s first start in a Test; he had only come on as a substitute in one earlier Test. That was the depth of his experience when he took the field.
But the All Blacks management showed little appreciation of the situation. They gave Barrett the task of being water boy for the night – which meant he would come in contact with Mo’unga every time a conversion was to be taken as he (Barrett) would be the one carrying out the kicking tee.
Did the tin-heads who manage the team not realise that this would put that much pressure on Mo’unga? To be constantly reminded that he had to live up to the extraordinary feats that Barrett had demonstrated in game two of the championship would certainly not have helped Mo’unga’s game.
Doubtless, as Barrett went out to the centre of the pitch, either with water when there was an injury break, or with a tee when a conversion was being taken, he would have spoken to Mo’unga. And this was probably the last thing that Mo’unga needed.
As a result, the man who had shown confidence and remarkable ability in the final two games of the Super Rugby season, with a standout performance in the final as the Crusaders won their ninth title, was a nervy, hesitant player against Argentina. Nobody who ranked the players that night would have given Mo’unga much more than a barely passing grade.
The All Blacks management should have made Barrett sit in the stands and picked any other player as the water carrier for the night. For once, they showed a degree of foolishness which ranks with the period, long ago, when there seemed to be a belief that Leon MacDonald, a moderately competent full-back, could play at any position.
On the plus side, there was the performance of third-string scrum0half Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi. Thomas Tekanapu Rawakata (“TJ”) Perenara was in the starting line-up and young Tahuriorangi played the last 20 minutes or so.
He showed an enormous amount of confidence for one making his debut. There was one delectable touch that led to the final All Blacks try, when he flicked the ball to his left, confident in the knowledge that someone would be there to pick it up and break through. Damian McKenzie did just that and his pass to Jack Goodhew led to the latter going in close to the left upright.
So it looks like the departure or Tavera Kerr-Barlow — who was third in the scrum-half rankings behind Aaron Smith and Perenara — for France to ply his wares, will not really affect the All Blacks as they look to build depth in their ranks ahead of the next World Cup. Tahuriorangi is there to pick up the slack.
The degree of depth in the All Blacks’ ranks was demonstrated when lock Brodie Retallick and centre Ngani Laumape were both injured early on in the game. Additionally, full-back Ben Smith had to go off for a head injury assessment.
But the game went on without a hiccup with Sam Whitelock, Anton Lienert-Brown and Damian McKenzie filling the breach. Smith later returned after he was cleared of any injury.