Surprise selections make for intriguing start to All Blacks campaign
Opinion: After a Super Rugby season where a lot of presumptions were made, the first All Black team of the year proved a bunch of them wrong. Or at least delayed them a week.
It's hard to know what to make of this test against Argentina in Mendoza. On one hand, it means a lot, given the trials and tribulations the All Blacks have faced over the last couple of years.
This is probably the most inconsequential match of 2023 and is a perfect chance to roll the dice with a few selections. Then again, a loss will almost certainly raise the tension levels again as the clock ticks down towards the World Cup.
The selections could have gone either way, so it's refreshing to see Ian Foster give a few guys a crack that most people weren't expecting.
In saying that, the All Blacks are still not getting their heads around how time zones work and naming their side at 3:30am NZT is unsurprising.
Hopefully the bone-headed culture of high performance inflexibility is something else that's being shown the door at the end of the season.
Starting up front, there certainly isn't any surprise over Ethan de Groot and Tyrel Lomax at prop. Veteran Dane Coles will potentially be in for a backlash after what happened the last time these sides met. His inclusion strongly hints at what the plans are for Samisoni Taukei'aho and the match against the Spingboks next weekend.
The second row is where things get interesting. This is only the third time in Foster's tenure that Samuel Whitelock and Brodie Retallick are missing, meaning a ton of pressure now goes on Josh Lord. The Chiefs lock has played fewer than two games of rugby in the last year thanks to injury, so here's a perfect opportunity to repay the faith shown in him.
Sam Cane and Ardie Savea were always going to be named, but while Shannon Frizell isn't much of a surprise at blindside, this would have been a great opportunity to give Samipeni Finau a game.
Damian McKenzie's selection may be saying more about who will be playing 10 next week, although it does show that the gap between himself and Richie Mo'unga hasn't quite opened up as much as first thought after the Crusaders' triumphant Super Rugby campaign.
If McKenzie can guide the ship to a dominant win it'll make for a continuing conversation, equally if Mo'unga can flourish in an unfamiliar bench role then that's a talking point too.
Jordie Barrett's spot seems pretty safe due to his long-range goal kicking ability, but Rieko Ioane will be wanting to make the most of this opportunity before Anton Lienert-Brown's suspension is finished.
Congratulations to Emoni Narawa, who struck form at exactly the right time and deserves his selection into the spot vacated by Sevu Reece.
Narawa feels like the perfect World Cup year selection, but that also raises questions over Caleb Clarke. The Blues winger's form has dipped this season and even with Leicester Fainga'anuku and Mark Telea out injured, there was probably a strong case for Dallas McLeod to have a run, after his solid form for the Crusaders.
Beauden Barrett is at fullback because he has to be, by Foster's logic. Despite being one of the most talked about players this season, Shaun Stevenson has missed out even though this would have been a perfect test to let him loose in test rugby. If he had been picked, Foster would have flip flopped on a big selection call before a ball had even been kicked.
Barrett and Clarke are two of seven Blues players in the match day squad, the highest representation of any Super Rugby team. That is a surprise in itself due to the ignominious way their season ended.
The bench is fairly predictable, although Finlay Christie being there also might give a clue about the plan for Cam Roigard. The Hurricanes halfback is a big, physical presence who may be saved for the Springboks as well.
In all, an intriguing start to the season.
This is a Pumas team that is chasing yet more history: they've beaten the All Blacks on neutral ground and in New Zealand, now they will be feeling like it's time to do it in front of their passionate home fans. Because really, after being victorious twice in the last three seasons, to the Argentines it probably doesn't matter who the All Blacks pick.