The All Blacks will square up against the Wallabies in Perth on Sunday without Sam Whitelock, Aaron Smith and Richie Mo’unga – one of the three has New Zealand pundits sweating profusely.
The three expectant fathers were omitted from the 35-man squad that travelled to Western Australia. They are expected to miss at least three Tests, including the two against Argentina, due to the two-week quarantine in Queensland but could return in time to face South Africa.
The 127-cap lock Whitelock was filling in for injured All Blacks captain Sam Cane – Ardie Savea has been named to lead the team in the absence of both captains.
TJ Peranara and Brad Weber are in the running for the No 9 jersey usually worn by 101-Test scrumhalf Smith, while Beauden Barrett is expected to take over from Mo’unga (26 caps) at flyhalf.
The three absent players leave a void in experience and acumen in key tactical decision-making positions. The Kiwi rugby scribes at Stuff.co.nz weighed in on which player would be the hardest to replace.
Richard Knowler suggested Whitelock’s absence would be most keenly felt: “Never underestimate what an old head brings to the All Blacks, on and off the grass.”
Robert van Royen agreed that it would be a challenge for Scott Barrett or Patrick Tuipulotu to match the veteran jumper’s leadership and grunt, but not quite as difficult as asking Perenara or Weber to replicate “Aaron Smith’s bullet pass and playmaking ability”.
Marc Hinton was more emphatic: “Aaron Smith. And it’s not close. Nuggy’s swift delivery, sharp mind and superb energy are irreplaceable. There is daylight to the next No 9 right now. Beauden Barrett is like for like at 10 and Scott Barrett or Patrick Tuipulotu are fine Plan Bs in the second row.”
Van Royen and Hinton were supported by Aaron Goile. “All three [veterans] have been superb, but it’s the gun halfback who is the toughest to replace.
“With Whitelock out, there is Scott Barrett or Patrick Tuipulotu to step in, while Mo’unga’s absence hands the keys to one Beauden Barrett. In Smith’s case, though, his bullet pass, sniping runs, and outstanding generalship will be nowhere near what the likes of TJ Perenara – still getting up to speed post-Japan – Brad Weber or Finlay Christie could offer in an all-round package.”
The Springboks look full value to sustain their hot streak when they take on the Wallabies on 12 September, and that’s applies pressure on the depleted All Blacks to beat Australia and then Argentina to keep pace with the world champions.