All Blacks confident despite stretched midfield resources
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The New Zealand All Blacks face a strain on their midfield resources as they attempt to regroup after last weekend's test loss to the British and Irish Lions and to prepare for the series-deciding third test in Auckland on Saturday.
Ryan Crotty, the All Blacks' new midfield organizer, has been ruled out with a hamstring injury sustained in the first test at Eden Park and Sonny Bill Williams has been suspended after being sent off in the second test.
That leaves the All Blacks to choose from a group of relatively inexperienced centers as they attempt to avoid their first series loss to the Lions since 1971.
Assistant coach Ian Foster says he has confidence in any of the players New Zealand may call on when it names its lineup for the match on Thursday.
Anton Lienert-Brown seems the only certainty to start after playing in both of the first two tests, as a replacement for Crotty in Auckland and as a starter in the No. 13 jersey in Wellington.
The other midfield position may go to rugby league convert Ngani Laumape, who made his test debut in Wellington when Williams was sent off, or Malakai Fekitoa, who has been called into the All Blacks squad as cover.
New Zealand also has Jack Goodhue, added to the squad when Crotty was injured, and — in what would be a long shot selection — Reiko Ioane, who played both of the first two tests on the wing but is adept at outside center.
The selection might also depend on the fitness of winger Waisake Naholo, who left the field for a head injury assessment in Wellington after being struck by Lions' flanker Sean O'Brien. It is not yet clear whether Naholo had a concussion.
"We have got a number of options in midfield," Foster said. "It goes to show, you've really got to make sure you're preparing a group of four or five at all stages just do be ready to play.
"Yes, there's been some reshuffling and that brings its challenges but our expectations are that whoever goes out there plays at a top level whether it's their first test or 50th."
Foster said the All Blacks were prepared for all contingencies.
"We like to think were really smart and have a great plan," he said. "Last year we ended up bringing Anton in and he was a bit of a revelation.
"All we can really do is prepare everyone to the best of their ability, give them an opportunity and leave it up to them."
Foster said New Zealand hadn't produced its best form in either of the first two tests, and need to improve in the third test.
"We've done some really good stuff in the last two weeks but it's pretty clear that there's more in us," he said. "We've got to focus on that and make sure that in all circumstances, whether it's wet and cold or windy or whatever, we're still able to express ourselves when we want to."
Scrumhalf Aaron Smith expects the All Blacks, who were a man short for almost two-thirds of the test, to step up their attacking game after the Lions successfully stifled it in Wellington, holding New Zealand tryless in a test for the first time since 2014.
"That's something we're going to fix this week," Smith said. "We've learnt a lot from that game."
The Lions have relaxed since the second test in the tourist resort of Queenstown on New Zealand's South Island and will fly to Auckland on Wednesday. Foster expressed some surprise at that match preparation but All Blacks flanker Jerome Kaino figured the Lions know what they're doing.
"I'm sure they'll throw some training in there somewhere," he said. "But, hey, if that's what they think will get the best out of their players, then good on them.
"For us, we've got a lot of improvements to make and we'll just worry about what we need to do."