- By award-winning sports writer Ivan Agnew
Having roasted Puma 39-0 on the Gold Coast rugby barbeque on Sunday night, the All Blacks selectors still cannot figure out their best team.
It’s not a shortage of talent that has them risking splinters and scratching their heads but a surplus of it.
Among stars not chosen for the Gold Coast massacre against Argentina were Dane Coles, Codie Taylor, Sam Whitelock, Ardie Savea, Aaron Smith, Richie Mo’unga and Will Jordan.
Whereas fans once dreaded their absence, they now welcome the chance it offers others.
In their historic win against New Zealand last year, the muscular Pumas dominated much of the forward battle and tackled like demons. Not this time against a black pack that binded tightly, drove hard and low and ruled ruck and rolling maul.
Just when Asafo Aumua must have thought he was the forgotten hooker, he produced a stunning 40-minute cannon ball rampage before Samisoni Taukei’aho replaced him to confirm his ability.
All eight gave their all with No 8 Luke Jacobson and Dalton Papalii enhancing their workaholic reputation and Akira Ioane happy to do the hard yards after Man of the Match performances in his previous two tests.
Best of all Beauden Barrett was sharp and inventive, all but reaping two tries with astute kicks for fullback brother Jordie and succeeding in setting up two others. The best was pure Beaudy magic when he sidestepped three defenders.
Inside, TJ Perenara was at his busy best offering a smart service and strong kicking game.
The David Havili and Rieko Ioane midfield combination continues to shine with Havili performing like a test veteran who times his passes to the speedy Ioane beautifully.
George Bridge remains a complete wing with no obvious weakness and Sevu Reece is a tough, elusive player who spells danger.
Fears that the All Blacks forwards lacked the strength of England in the 2019 World Cup semi-final were realistic though New Zealand were still the only team to beat champions South Africa.
The improvement this year is pleasing and it was good to see Joe Moody get a late run off the bench after missing so much through injury.
Although injuries have taken a toll, they have opened the door for a talented group who are up for the dance.
All Blacks 39 (Luke Jacobson 2, Rieko Ioane, Sevu Reece, Dalton Papalii tries; Beauden Barrett con, pen. Jordie Barrett 3 cons, pen.)
Meanwhile the world champion Springboks suffered a shock 28-26 loss on Sunday night against the Wallabies, falling at the last to a penalty by in-form Quade Cooper some 40m out.
The next three weekends will decide if they retain their number one ranking but they’d need to beat the Wallabies then the All Blacks twice.