All Blacks set challenges for 2021

All Blacks coach Ian Foster. Photo: Andrew Cornaga/Photosport

All Blacks coach Ian Foster has set the team a clear target for 2021.

“We want to get our performance at a consistent level that we can really challenge and be the number one team in the world.

The first step towards reclaiming a title they haven’t held for almost two years has been taken.

Named in Auckland on Monday night, the first All Blacks squad of 2021 included 36 names.

A big but necessary number, according to Foster.

“We’ve got four tests-in-a-row in September, we could have up to five-in-a-row in November and we’ve just come off a big Super Rugby competition.

“Really we’ve decided we’re going to need a bigger number next year to get through the year, so we may as well bring people in now.”

Four of which were new faces.

Crusaders utility forward Ethan Blackadder, Blues halfback Finlay Christie, Highlanders prop Ethan de Groot and Chiefs midfielder Quinn Tupaea all earned their first All Blacks selections for next month’s home tests against Tonga and Fiji.

After being called in as injury cover last year, but not playing, Crusaders prop George Bower also featured.

A player at the other end of the experience scale, 122-test veteran and captain in the absence of injured Sam Cane, Sam Whitelock said the senior players would be as inviting as they could.

“It is daunting when you’re in a new environment.

“They’ll know the guys they’ve played with in Super Rugby but it’s on us to go and spark a convo, find out who they are, what drives them and let the natural connection flow from there.”

And it wasn’t just his new All Blacks team-mates Whitelock was looking forward to seeing.

“During Super Rugby, that first trans-Tasman game, we couldn’t actually get the Aussies out of the changing room because they were the same as us, just wanted to talk to someone different.

“It’s going to be the same playing Tonga and Fiji. There’s some guys there that we’ve played with and against before and I’m sure catching up with those guys after a year or two is going to be really nice.”

Even better if the New Zealand side could get their season off to a sharp start.

While that was always the goal, selector Grant Fox said looking ahead – with up to 15 tests on the cards – they needed to use the early matches wisely.

“We’ve got a strong schedule in September and the first weekend of October.

“We play Argentina back-to-back and then South Africa back-to-back. Big physical teams and attritional rugby.

“We need guys in now to get them up to speed with how we want to play the game and get an understanding of our systems.”

Especially after a thorough review of a mixed 2020.

Foster said an historic loss to Argentina, and a draw and a loss against the Wallabies taught them plenty ahead of his second season in charge.

“The team got a little bit distracted, we probably didn’t get a few things right in terms of the consistency of our performance.

“But we did learn that we could play at a high level. The lesson is at international level or All Black level you’ve got to prepare 100 per cent, bone deep every single week.”

That started with a three-day camp in South Auckland later this week, leading into the All Blacks 2021 opener against Tonga in Auckland next weekend.

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