What the All Blacks are after from their Test newbies

Debate inevitably rages following every All Blacks squad announcement. With six rookies selected for three Tests against Ireland next month, and incumbents making way for those inclusions, there is a new flavour as Ian Foster seeks to usher in swift improvement after successive defeats, and a sense of trepidation, ended last year.

Dig a little deeper into the All Blacks 36-man squad and common themes emerge in the form of power and tempo.

In losses to Ireland and France, and the earlier defeat to South Africa, last year the All Blacks struggled to generate enough go forward momentum and ruck speed to allow their lethal backline threats to flourish.

Their set-piece buckled at times, too, while they were often beaten to the punch at the breakdown and in the physicality stakes.

Reviewing last year's COVID-affected campaign the All Blacks have clearly identified these areas are in need of swift amendment.

While former Warriors captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck's maiden call up after 10 Super Rugby games for the Blues garnered much attention, Fijian-born Chiefs loose forward Pita Gus Sowakula was the main surprise - the closest notion to a bolter.

Sowakula stormed out of the blocks with a series of powerful performances this season, before fading towards the backend. In a stacked loose forward contingent he won selection ahead of Chiefs teammate Luke Jacobson, Highlanders blindside Shannon Frizell, No. 8 Marino Mikaele-Tu'u and workaholic Blues forward Tom Robinson, among others.

Ethan Blackadder's season-ending shoulder injury also opened the door.

Speaking to Sowakula's selection, All Blacks forwards coach John Plumtree offered A firm indication of the shifts needed to impose their style of play on Ireland and opponents to come.

"We love what he can bring to a game through his power," Plumtree said. "In international rugby, momentum is hard to find, especially with defences so flat. Pita Gus is one guy who certainly can dent a defensive line.

"Facing the Irish and the bigger teams in a physical sense, we know they rise physically in that department and we've got to rise further. We know we've the skill and the power but our physicality has got to go up a few notches this year, and that's something we'll be focusing on.

"We know we've got good backs and the onus on us is to get momentum for them. That's our job up front in set-piece or around the park - we've got to be able to get across the advantage line and consistently build pressure."

The desire to punch through defensive lines through power extends beyond the forward pack to Caleb Clarke's recall after his turbulent 2021 season, and Leicester Fainga'anuku's first inclusion.

Fainga'anuku, like Tuivasa-Sheck, is unlikely to be unleashed immediately on Ireland but injecting his explosive qualities off the bench against tiring defenders is a dangerous prospect for Foster to have at his disposal.

"Leicester has been on our radar for a while," Foster said. "We see him as a wing who can cover centre. He brings power to that position; he backs himself with the ball. The high ball stuff he's going to get some questions asked of him at the next level - he probably doesn't get exposed to it enough at Super level but he's done enough with his energy and ability to break things open. It gives us some nice options off the bench."

Generating the sought-after front-foot platform through strong ball carriers would pave the way for Highlanders halfback Folau Fakatava, possibly the most dynamic rookie inclusion, to make an immediate impact.

Tongan-born Fakatava would have been selected for the All Blacks last year but only in the past month was his convoluted eligibility - he moved to New Zealand aged 16 - cleared for him to take the next step.

The Aaron Smith-Fakatava one two punch was one of few highlights for the Highlanders this season - Fakatava single-handedly winning the match against the Reds in Brisbane by scoring one try and setting up another with a magic inside flick ball in the final quarter.

That's now a combination the All Blacks are keen to replicate, at the expense of 78-test veteran TJ Perenara and Chiefs co-captain Brad Weber, both of whom are expected to press their claims with New Zealand Māori who play two mid-week matches against Ireland.

"Folau offers something around the edges of the ruck that's pretty unique and we don't lose anything in the defence area with him," Foster said. "He likes to go and fight - probably a bit too much at the breakdown but that's a good thing to fix - and we like the way he can create space off quick ball.

"The start of this year he was sluggish. He didn't make an impact and his passing was a little bit off the mark but he's worked hard the second half of the competition so this hasn't been handed to him because of an eligibility thing. We think he's got a skill set that suits a fast game."

With Damian McKenzie ineligible on his return from Japan until he plays for Waikato in the NPC, Blues playmaker Stephen Perofeta earns a deserved call-up after impressing from first five-eighth and fullback this season.

Perofeta's quick feet, composure and clutch goal kicking continue to shine. He'll have to wait patiently behind Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo'unga but, should he get the chance, Perofeta has never been better placed to seize his Test debut.

Of the other omissions, Highlanders prop Ethan de Goot is the notable absentee after being told to improve his fitness and mobility.

De Goot's dominant scrummaging effort against Ofa Tuungafasi in the quarterfinal defeat to the Blues wasn't enough to force his way in.

Chiefs prop Aidan Ross fully earned his inclusion on the back of strong set-piece work over the past two years but eyebrows were raised at Karl Tu'inukuafe's selection given he has signed to join French club Montpellier after the Rugby Championship.

Smith (groin) and Jordie Barrett (knee) are minor injury concerns for the All Blacks - both are considered touch and go for the first test on July 2 - as they sweat on any further casualties in Saturday's Super Rugby final between the Blues and Crusaders at Eden Park that features a hefty 22 of the 36-man squad.