All Blacks wing Mark Telea. Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

All Blacks XV has changed notably since losing series to Ireland

The Kiwis look stronger for some new faces and switching certain players’ roles.

AMONG THE REASONS the All Blacks will have belief this week is the fact that their team has changed notably, and seemingly for the better, since Ireland came to New Zealand last year and beat them in a Test series on Kiwi soil for the first time ever.

Head coach Ian Foster’s job was under pressure in the wake of that series but senior All Blacks players eventually urged New Zealand Rugby to stick with him.

There were changes to the coaching staff around Foster, with Joe Schmidt taking on an influential role involving the attack and kicking game, while Jason Ryan has done fine work with the New Zealand forwards.

Foster and co. recognised that they needed to change things in terms of playing personnel. That evolution means Ireland will be facing a rather different side than the one they got the better of last year down in New Zealand.

Jordie Barrett was at fullback for those three Tests but has since made a successful switch to inside centre, from where his power, distribution skills, and kicking game have finally answered New Zealand’s longstanding conundrum in the number 12 shirt.

Quinn Tupaea started the first two Tests against Ireland at inside centre last year, with David Havili coming in for the third. Tupaea is not at the World Cup and while Havili did start at 12 against Namibia, Jordie Barrett – who missed the World Cup opener against France – is the main man in that slot.

The number 15 jersey is now occupied but his brother, Beauden, who started all three Tests against Ireland last year at number 10. 

beauden-barrett-celebrates-his-try-with-richie-mounga Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo'unga celebrate against Ireland in 2019. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Two-time world player of the year Beauden has been impressive at 15 since returning there last autumn, with his kicking and passing qualities working well in tandem with out-half Richie Mo’unga, who was on the bench for the Ireland series last year.

Mo’unga and Barrett also worked as a 10-15 playmaking axis at the 2019 World Cup as the Kiwis reached the semi-finals, while the highly talented Damian McKenzie is now back in the group too having missed the Ireland series in 2022.

McKenzie has delivered some scintillating rugby at out-half and fullback in recent weeks but may be used off the bench this weekend against Ireland.

The two constants in the Kiwi backline from last year are scrum-half Aaron Smith and outside centre Rieko Ioane.

Smith remains a sensational passer whose tactical smarts and energy are key to this team, while Ioane has struck up a strong midfield partnership with Jordie Barrett and provides a constant line-breaking threat with his acceleration and power.

But there has been more change on the Kiwi wings. Last year, Sevu Reece and Leicester Fainga’anuku started the first two Tests before Will Jordan returned from injury for the third Test, with Fainga’anuku making way.

Right wing Jordan is a huge danger to Ireland’s hopes of advancing into the World Cup semi-finals and even when he returned from injury last year, he scored a brilliant try in that third Test.

With Reece missing the World Cup through injury and Fainga’anuku in a back-up role, Blues flyer Mark Telea is now established as the Kiwis’ left wing. A lethal finisher who scored two tries in the World Cup opener against France, Telea forms a thrilling wing duo with Jordan.

ethan-de-groot Ethan de Groot will be back from suspension. Photosport / Andrew Cornaga/INPHO Photosport / Andrew Cornaga/INPHO / Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

The New Zealand front row has also undergone lots of upheaval. Ireland ruthlessly exposed the Kiwi props last year and Foster simply had to change. 

25-year-old Ethan de Groot has become the first-choice loosehead prop, bringing more dynamism to that position, and is due to return from a suspension for this clash with Ireland.

George Bower, who started all three of the Tests against Ireland last year, missed the World Cup with injury, so Ofa Tu’ungafasi is expected to be the other loosehead this weekend. Tu’ungafasi actually started two of last year’s Tests at tighthead but has since switched across.

Meanwhile, Tyrel Lomax has emerged as the first-choice tighthead prop over the last year. Unfortunately for the Kiwis, he is a doubt this week due to a knee injury. If he doesn’t make it back, the experienced Nepo Laulala is likely to start with 23-year-old Fletcher Newell in reserve.

Codie Taylor started all three Tests against Ireland last year at hooker but wasn’t at his best. His form is much better now and he remains the first-choice in that position, while the explosive Samisoni Taukei’aho and grizzled Dane Coles provide support.

The hugely experienced Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock were the second row pairing for two of the three Tests against Ireland in 2022, with Scott Barrett slotting in there when Whitelock missed the second Test due to injury.

But Barrett’s superb form since has broken up that longstanding lock partnership and it would be no surprise if Whitelock, now the most-capped All Black of all time, backs up Barrett and Retallick from the bench this weekend.

shannon-frizell-is-tackled Shannon Frizell missed the opener against France. Photosport / Andrew Cornaga/INPHO Photosport / Andrew Cornaga/INPHO / Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

In the All Blacks back row, number eight Ardie Savea remains a totemic figure, while captain and openside Sam Cane – another to miss the France game – is now back from injury and ready to lead the challenge against Ireland this weekend.

Shannon Frizell, who missed last year’s series against Ireland and the World Cup opener against France, seems likely to start at blindside thanks to his sheer physicality. Last year, Scott Barrett was at number six for the first Test, Dalton Papali’i played there in the second, then Akira Ioane came in for the third. Barrett remains an option there depending on the Kiwis’ game plan but he has been brilliant in the second row.

While Ioane is not part of this World Cup squad, Papali’i looks set for involvement again this weekend.

The All Blacks bench will certainly have a different look to it this weekend than was the case through the Ireland Tests last year. The likes of Karl Tu’inukuafe, Aidan Ross, Folau Fakatava, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, and Pita Gus Sowakula are not in this World Cup squad.

New Zealand have evolved their style and quality of rugby since that series, with Schmidt and Ryan having big influences, but the personnel are also notably different.

It makes this challenge for Ireland all the more intriguing.

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