All Blacks v Italy: NZ coach Ian Foster urges fringe players to seize opportunity against Azzurri

All Blacks coach Ian Foster has challenged his players to provide him with a selection headache for the final two matches of their northern tour, after picking a virtual second-string side to face Italy in Rome.

Foster says the next few games are vital for building squad depth for the 2023 World Cup and - with games against Ireland and France to come - has asked those picked for the weekend to make his selection decisions as difficult as possible.

"I hope it [selection] is incredibly tough," Foster says. "You only build depth, when people seize the opportunity that you have given them.

"What we have been delighted with over the last two months is that we have made sure we have given opportunities, but the credit goes to the players.

All Blacks v Italy: NZ coach Ian Foster urges fringe players to seize opportunity against Azzurri
Photo credit: Getty/Newshub.

"The reason we are talking about our depth at the moment is because, to a man, when we have given someone a jersey, they have gone out there and done a really good job."

Last weekend, the All Blacks brushed aside understrength Wales 54-16 in Cardiff and, even with a number of their regulars rested, they're expected to win comfortably against the Italians, lead for the first time by new Kiwi coach Kieran Crowley.

The Azzurri have never beaten the All Blacks and went winless for the sixth consecutive year in the 2021 Six Nations.

But Foster has cautioned against hubris, and says the tests against Ireland and France, whom they will meet in the opening game of the next World Cup in Paris, will be a better yardstick for where they are as a squad.

"You can get overconfident and the reality is we will only have good depth, if we keep producing performances," he says. 

"When we look at the last two weeks of this tour, a lot will depend on the quality of our performance on Saturday.

"We can't excuse anything below a level that we really want to play at. If we [play at that level], there will be a lot of pressure [for places] in the last two weeks."

Foster has no issues with handing the captaincy back to Sam Cane against Italy, despite wanting to give the flanker a chance to focus on his game without the burden of leadership, as he continues his recovery from a pectoral injury.

"We weren't in a hurry to rush him back, but the way selections worked out for this group, we felt it was right," he notes. 

"We wanted to give Sam Whitelock a bit less time - with Brodie Retallick's shoulder, we didn’t want to use him for this game - and Ardie [Savea] had a monstrous game last week and we feel he's better having a rest.

"The captaincy sits easily on Sam's shoulders. In some ways, it’s going to sharpen his preparation for this week."


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