The All Blacks’ World Cup base for their four pool matches next year has today been officially confirmed as Lyon - France’s third largest city south-east of Paris.
World Rugby described the announcement of the 20 nations' bases as another “milestone” in the build-up to the tournament which kicks off on September 9 NZT when the All Blacks play France in Paris, but Sunday’s Test against England at Twickenham may be a more significant one for Ian Foster’s men.
They will be hoping to not only avenge their 2019 World Cup semifinal defeat to England in Yokohama but also provide an indication of real progress under Foster and his assistants against their final Northern Hemisphere opponents before the next one kicks off.
There will be interest in particular in their attack off set piece and the effectiveness of their pack against an outfit coached by Eddie Jones which dominated them up front last time out.
The teams at the World Cup will invariably be housed in luxury accommodation and there will be interest in where the All Blacks lay their heads in picturesque Lyon before the knockout stages, which are split between Marseille in the south and Paris.
And for Foster, Sam Cane’s broken cheekbone may offer him a luxury of a different kind – the potential to see the in-form openside flanker Dalton Papali’i play alongside blindside flanker Scott Barrett, with Ardie Savea a formality at No.8.
Foster will announce his side early tomorrow morning.
In short, Papali’i’s ball carrying has given the All Blacks’ attack a different dimension on this tour.
In the wins against Wales and Scotland, he made breaks against relatively set defences that put Foster’s men on the front foot and, for all of Cane’s excellent defence close to the ruck, they were tackle-busting efforts we haven’t seen the Chiefs player make in years.
Papali’i’s attacking danger slightly wider of the ruck may allow a little more room for halfback Aaron Smith close to it and a loose forward configuration of Scott Barrett, Papaili’i and Savea appears to be better balanced than one of Barrett, Cane and Savea.
Barrett, a lock with explosive pace of the mark and an above average ability to consistently make good defensive reads, will also bolster the All Blacks’ lineout and provide a little more weight around the field against an English side which will go after the visitors’ set piece.
These are all reasons why Sir Steve Hansen picked him in the No.6 jersey in that semifinal three years ago. It ultimately failed, but not because of Barrett.
For whatever reason, the All Blacks couldn’t compete physically – probably because they weren’t right mentally – but there is every indication that they are in a good place this week and there were signs over the past fortnight, particularly against Wales, that they could trouble the English with their directness in the middle of the field.
Another plus for Foster and company is that Shannon Frizell’s form in this area could provide the All Blacks with a healthy impact off the reserves bench if he is named there. Presumably Barrett will in the second half replace either Sam Whitelock, who will be named captain, or Brodie Retallick, available again for what will be his 100th Test after serving his red card ban.
In some ways Foster’s most successful selection changes this year have been happy accidents; the promotion of props Ethan de Groot, Tyrel Lomax and Fletcher Newell due to injuries and similarly the rise of Jordie Barrett, likely to be named at No.12 against England.
If the head coach does go down the Scott Barrett, Papali’i, Savea route against one of the game’s genuine heavyweights and it is successful, it will provide more food for thought over the Christmas break.
It will also raise more questions about Cane’s immediate future as captain, but Foster, who oversaw the departures of former assistants Brad Mooar and John Plumtree this year, should be getting used to making the toughest decisions.
Potential All Blacks team vs England
Kick-off 6.30am on Sunday NZT at Twickenham
All Blacks: 15. Beauden Barrett, 14. Sevu Reece, 13. Rieko Ioane, 12. Jordie Barrett, 11. Caleb Clarke, 10. Richie Mo'unga, 9. Aaron Smith, 8. Ardie Savea, 7. Dalton Papali'i, 6. Scott Barrett, 5. Sam Whitelock [c], 4. Brodie Retallick, 3. Tyrel Lomax, 2. Codie Taylor, 1. Ethan de Groot
Reserves: 16. Samisoni Taukei'aho, 17. George Bower, 18. Fletcher Newell, 19. Tupou Vaa'i, 20. Shannon Frizell, 21. TJ Perenara, 22. Anton Lienert-Brown, 23. Mark Telea
All Blacks’ World Cup pool draw
Vs. France, Paris, September 9
Vs. Namibia, Toulouse, September 16
Vs. Italy, Lyon, September 30
Vs. Uruguay, Lyon, October 6