Ian Foster explains the two All Blacks squad changes for the Rugby Championship


All Blacks head coach Ian Foster has explained why he has recalled two players into his squad for the Rugby Championship.

At the end of a drama-filled week that had the spotlight firmly thrust on Foster’s future, a new 36-man All Blacks squad was named on Friday to play in the Rugby Championship.

The first leg of the competition, a two-test trip to South Africa to face the Springboks, looms as make-or-break for Foster, who this week survived a New Zealand Rugby review despite leading the All Blacks to a groundbreaking home series defeat to Ireland.

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As such, Foster has used the unsuccessful Irish series has a chance to make some – albeit minimal – alterations to his playing squad.

Those changes have come in the form of Highlanders duo Ethan de Groot and Shannon Frizell, both of whom have been recalled into the All Blacks squad in place of France-bound prop Karl Tu’inukuafe and rookie loose forward Pita Gus Sowakula.

Facing the media for the first time since last Saturday’s decisive loss to Ireland in Wellington, Foster said he was impressed with the progress of De Groot, a surprise omission from the Ireland series, since asking him to improve his fitness levels.

“Delighted with Ethan de Groot coming in. He’s done what we’ve asked him to do the last six or seven weeks. A lot leaner, a lot fitter, and excited with his selection,” Foster said of the four-test youngster.

“He’s dropped quite a bit of weight. He’s bouncing around and he’s still a new All Black with lots to learn, but, like I said, got a lot of faith in him long-term. We just need him to get the levels that we need him to.”

Frizell’s selection, meanwhile, comes after the 17-test loose forward missed a large portion of Super Rugby Pacific due to a knee injury, which ultimately saw him miss out on the squad that played Ireland.

However, Frizell has been called back into the side at the expense of Sowakula, the two-test Chiefs star who made a try-scoring debut in the first Irish test, after working his way back to full fitness.

“Also pleased to welcome back Shannon Frizell, who – again – a lot of experience, has had interruptions the last 18 months, but really feels he’s in a good spot to come back in,” Foster said.

“Shannon’s just got through a bigger training load. We know that, we’ve been monitoring that. You’ll remember that he had eight or nine weeks off at Super level, so it’s been really about getting him a lot fitter.”

De Groot and Frizell aren’t the only notable inclusions in the All Blacks set-up, as three additional players have been named to travel with the squad to South Africa as reserves.

The suspension of tighthead prop Angus Ta’avao has paved the way for Tyrel Lomax to earn a boarding pass, and the same can be said of utility back Braydon Ennor, whose inclusion comes as Jack Goodhue continues to recover from his long-term knee injury .

Despite being sidelined for up to eight weeks, veteran lock Brodie Retallick has also been included in the squad given he may be available for the final tests of the Rugby Championship.

However, his unavailability for the next few matches means uncapped second rower Josh Dickson will join the squad after having trained with the All Blacks in the lead-up to the second Ireland test in Dunedin.

“We’re bringing a couple of extra players into camp to cover reasonably significant injury lists at the moment,” Foster said.

“We’ll bring Tyrel Lomax into camp. We’ll be bringing Josh Dickson in. He joins the squad probably on more of a long-term basis because of Brodie Retallick’s smashed cheekbone, and Braydon Ennor will join the group to cover Jack Goodhue’s knee while we assess that, so that’s the state of the play.

“The squad that we’ve just announced has got a job to do, and we just want to get stuck into our work and go and do it.”

The selection tweaks are illustrative of the different approach Foster wants the All Blacks to take heading into the Springboks tests.

Having reviewed his side’s back-to-back defeat at the hands of Ireland, Foster said he has identified some key areas that the All Blacks must improve on if they are to beat the Springboks, who he said pose major threats up front.

“Tough to crack,” Foster said of the reigning world champions, who have slipped to third on the World Rugby rankings despite their recent 2-1 series win over Wales.

“Clearly made a lot of changes in that second test, and you could see them resting some players, but building through that third test.

“They’re physical, they’ve got some areas of their game where they really are focused on, particularly around the mauling game, the driving game, and that’s an area that hurt us in that third test, so we’ve got some clear areas we’ve got to improve.”

With that in mind, Foster indicated that there may be some personnel changes in New Zealand’s forward pack for their next two tests.

“Again, I guess like our fans, we’re searching for the answers,” he said.

“We go through and look at selection and say, ‘Well, do we need to change some things in order to get the change and the movement that we need?’, and we’ve got a lot of faith in the group.

“We’ve obviously made a couple, and you may or may not see a few more at selection time, but, at the end of the day… we’re just starting our campaign for the year and, again, we didn’t start the way we wanted, but it hasn’t taken us off the plan that we’re on.”

The All Blacks and Springboks will open the Rugby Championship at Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit on August 6, before squaring off again at Ellis Park in Johannesburg a week later.

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