Richie Mo’unga, a good chance to start for the All Blacks in the second Test against the Springboks, has hinted at the frustration being felt in the camp after the Mbombele Stadium defeat, saying his team’s inability to cope with South Africa’s defensive pressure was “a bit of an uppercut”.
Mo’unga went further about the All Blacks’ near constant stream of mistakes during their 26-10 loss, their third consecutive reverse and their worst in 94 years against the Boks, when saying it didn’t take confidence or a good mindset to do the bare minimum on a rugby pitch.
“I wouldn’t say it’s mental, I’d say it’s skill error,” he told reporters in Johannesburg ahead of Sunday’s Test at Ellis Park.
“You don’t have to be in the right frame of mind to catch a ball or to complete your job or to do the basics well and I think not executing those put us under pressure.”
Mo’unga is a chance to start at No.10 should Beauden Barrett either not be available after landing on his neck after a horrific high-ball challenge from Kurt-Lee Arendse late in the Test or, if he is passed fit, moved to fullback to cover for brother Jordie, who has an ankle injury.
A message from Barrett posted on the All Blacks’ social media accounts saying: “my neck’s feeling good and I’ve bounced back really well from the collision at the weekend. I’m good to go”, bodes well for Barrett being involved in some capacity.
Mo’unga, who served his Crusaders apprenticeship under Dan Carter, has long been known as a hard taskmaster at that level and it appears he is increasingly comfortable asking for higher standards to be applied at Test level, as a team’s navigator should. He didn't mince his words on Tuesday.
The 28-year-old, who has played 35 Tests, should also have relatively fond memories of Ellis Park. It was there that he led the Crusaders to their first Super Rugby title under Scott Robertson in 2017.
Five more championships have followed for Mo’unga under a head coach denied the All Blacks job in 2019 but who is increasingly likely to replace Ian Foster and sooner rather than later.
Mo'unga said it was key the All Blacks found a way to break out of the "cycle" of pressure the Boks exerted via their set piece, big ball runners around the fringes, and penalties. By way of contrast, the All Blacks failed to build any of their own during the entire 80 minutes.
Asked about the recent criticism aimed at the team after five losses in their last six Tests, a run which has dropped the All Blacks to a lowly fifth on the world rankings, Mo’unga said it was “fair”.
“We’ve got younger guys in the squad who haven’t experienced that before so it’s tough on them,” he said. “It’s tough on our families. But as someone who has been around for a little while, my mindset doesn’t change, my energy doesn’t change … the outside noise doesn’t matter to me or affect me.
“I can understand that the fans and people out there can get frustrated but we’re trying our best. We know it’s not up to All Blacks standard. Our preparations will be very deep to get a result this weekend.
“It’s very fair. The team they support that usually gets results is not getting results at the moment. It’s fair for the fans to care, because they do… but it’s also fair on us to not care what they think because we have a role to play and a job to do, and hearing that isn’t going to help us at this moment.”
Foster’s team announcement, likely to come on Thursday night, will be highly anticipated as he shuffles his cards for what may be his final hand as All Blacks coach.
Mo’unga, who hasn’t started a Test since he ran out against France in November last year, may be elevated but so too may prop Ethan de Groot and possibly loose forward Shannon Frizell.
“I’m capable of a start as well,” Mo’unga added. “I’m capable of being the guy if the team needs me to be that guy. I also understand I have a role to come on in the last 30 or 20 to try to change a game around. I’m ready.”