Richie Mo'unga gets nod over Beauden Barrett for Bledisloe Cup

Form has trumped perhaps formidability in Ian Foster’s most significant starting XV of his All Blacks head coaching career, with Richie Mo’unga, Damian McKenzie and David Havili getting the nod in the most contestable positions to face the Wallabies on Sa

Foster unveiled a largely expected 23 to take on the Australians in the Bledisloe opener and first of back-to-back trans-Tasman tests at their Auckland stronghold where they haven’t lost since 1994. Notably it contains three Barretts on the bench, with Jordie covering the outside backs, Beauden doing the honours 10 and 15 and Scott the second row.

In-form and evergreen halfback Aaron Smith is also named to start what will be his 100th test for the All Blacks, which is sure to add an extra layer of emotion to the night for the New Zealanders.

Beauden’s omission at the expense of Mo’unga should come as no surprise. They are both brilliant No 10s, capable of turning a match on its head with a flourish of their speed or skill. But Barrett has played this year in Japan, and there will be no rush to throw him back into the starting No 10 position after he played the previous two seasons at fullback in the black jersey.

It was notable that Foster had little to say on the selection that will probably garner the most interest in this lineup. Asked by Stuff what got Mo’unga the nod over his accomplished rival, he said: “We just believe he’s right for this game.”

Mo’unga was slightly more forthcoming on a positional duel he said earlier this year he had to embrace. “It’s talked about a lot,” he said. “But it’s not about me or Baz (Barrett), it’s about the team. We compete, eh, we’re competitors at training, pushing each other. I’d feel no different here today if he was starting at 10, knowing I’d given it everything I could.”

It is a similar story at fullback where the diminutive McKenzie (1.76m, 81kg) is preferred to the mush more physically imposing Jordie Barrett (1.96m, 96kg). Again it’s one of those either-or selections which could easily have been flipped. And again it’s hard to deny McKenzie his shot based on an outstanding body of work through 2021 where he has been unerringly good.

“Damian’s playing well,” said Foster. “We’re just really happy with how he’s going. We’ve got good competition there as well. Damian’s decision-making is strong, he’s feeling good about his game, and he’s running fast. So I think he warrants that position.”

Midfield was the other are where Foster had two pretty solid options. But he’s gone for Havili at second five-eighths to partner senior man Anton Lienert-Brown, though has also found room for Rieko Ioane, who was a strong option at centre, in his starting lineup on the left wing where he started his test career. Sevu Reece gets the right wing spot.

Foster explained that Will Jordan, who could easily have been a starter on the wing, had trained fully this week after coming off with a hamstring strain in the third test against Fiji.

“We really didn’t want to test that at 100 per cent, so we had a chance to not include him in the mix,” said the coach. “He is fit and available, and we think Rieko’s form at both centre and wing in July has been really strong.”

In terms of launching Havili on to the big stage at 12, which is a position relatively new to the Crusaders utility back, Foster said he had full faith in the Tasman player’s ability to rise to the challenge.

“He’s a heady rugby player, a good distributor, a good kicker, and he’s shown in the physical side of the game he was up to it in July. So he ticks those boxes.”

The other notable selections see George Bower get the nod for his fourth test appearance, and third start, at loosehead prop, the experienced Brodie Retallick see off the challenge of Scott Barrett for the starting lock’s berth and Dalton Papalii preferred in the loose trio alongside Ardie Savea (No 8) and Akira Ioane (blindside).

All Blacks: Damian McKenzie, Sevu Reece, Anton Lienert-Brown, David Havili, Rieko Ioane, Richie Mo’unga, Aaron Smith; Ardie Savea, Dalton Papalii, Akira Ioane, Sam Whitelock (c), Brodie Retallick, Nepo Laulala, Codie Taylor, George Bower. Reserves: Dane Coles, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Angus Ta’avao, Scott Barrett, Luke Jacobson, Brad Weber, Beauden Barrett, Jordie Barrett.