AUCKLAND – Talk, talk and talk some more has become the catchcry for Ngani Laumape as the standby All Black is thrust into the firing line for Saturday's return Test against Australia in Auckland.
The rookie was not included in the initial New Zealand Rugby Championship squad and told to work on his communication skills, as the All Blacks waltzed through their opening Bledisloe Cup Test 38-13 against Australia last week.
But injuries to Ryan Crotty and Sonny Bill Williams have seen the rapid elevation of the six-Test Laumape to become the starting inside centre alongside the two-Test Jack Goodhue with the backline ignited by experienced halves Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett.
At 1.71 metres and 103 kilograms (5ft 7in, 227 pounds) the diminutive Laumape is a battering ram on attack and a brickwall on defence, but his communication skills have been a shortcoming.
“He's aware of it and he's been working on it,” coach Steve Hansen said Thursday, adding a shortage of class inside centres, and a need to have the more experienced Anton Lienert-Brown come off the bench as an impact player, had forced his hand.
“Injuries force changes in planning. You've got to be flexible enough to go with those. He knows what we want him to talk about. Sport is a lot easier when people can connect via voice. Ngani plays outside of a position where there's a massive amount of expectation put on the 10 (flyhalf) to make all the right decisions and yet he can't see everything.
“The closest guy to talk to him is the 12 (inside centre). I don't want to make it bigger than Ben Hur, we're just asking him to talk about things that maybe he's hearing from other players and also what he's seeing himself.”
Alongside Laumape, Jordie Barrett also comes into an injury-enforced backline reshuffle to start at fullback. Ben Smith will move to the right wing forcing Waisake Naholo to switch to the left.
A week ago Hansen did not consider the youngest of the three All Blacks Barrett brothers for the first Test in Sydney, saying the 21-year-old needed a breather from international rugby. But an ankle injury to Rieko Ioane, and a lack of match fitness for Nehe Milner-Skudder left Hansen with little other option. “Jordie's in good shape. Yes, we wanted to give him a bit of a breather but at least one week's better than none,” Hansen said.
Despite the inexperience of the centres and fullback, the All Blacks dominant forward pack remains unchanged and they are overwhelming favourites to win on Saturday. Victory would give them the Bledisloe Cup, contested annually between the two countries, for a 16th straight year and they will move a step closer to a sixth title in seven years in the Rugby Championship which also involves South Africa and Argentina.
The All Blacks are unbeaten in their past 41 Tests at Eden Park since losing to France in 1994, and have beaten Australia in all 17 Tests they have played there since 1986.
Agence France-Presse (AFP)