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All Blacks end-of-year player grades: How the All Blacks' tight five stars rated in 2020

By Alex McLeod

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With the All Blacks‘ season coming to a close with Saturday’s dominant 38-0 bounce back win over Argentina in Newcastle, we look back on how members of Ian Foster’s squad fared over the course of the year.

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In the first of four instalments, we assess the campaigns of the tight five in the Bledisloe Cup and Tri-Nations campaigns and give them an old-fashioned school report card grading for their efforts.

Hookers

Dane Coles: B-

Appearances: 5

Points scored: 10 (2 tries)

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Sam Cane and Ian Foster react to All Blacks win
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Sam Cane and Ian Foster react to All Blacks win

One of many players to come under criticism in the wake of New Zealand’s shock loss to Argentina for his ill-discipline, the slap Dane Coles delivered to a Los Pumas player’s face in front of referee Angus Gardner became the defining action of his test season.

Whether that’s fair or not is debatable, but it’s hard to overlook that when reflecting on his year, although a much more composed outing over the weekend against the same opponents illustrated his ability to learn and adapt.

Overall, retaining his place as starting hooker after losing out to Codie Taylor at last year’s World Cup is worthy of note, while he bagged a couple of good tries to accompany New Zealand’s impressive lineout completion rate of 94 percent.

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Codie Taylor: C+

Appearances: 6

Points scored: 0

Lost his place as the All Blacks’ incumbent hooker to Coles, with his demotion coming on the back of the 16-all draw in Bledisloe I.

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It’s not as if Codie Taylor had really done himself nay harm through his performances, though, yet he didn’t exactly command selection back into the run-on team either.

Like a raft of players throughout the squad, this year will go down as one of Taylor’s quieter campaigns, and he must be eager to force himself back into the starting lineup through another big Super Rugby season with the Crusaders next year.

Asafo Aumua: C

Appearances: 1

Points scored: 0

After years of sitting on the periphery of the national squad after appearing in two non-tests for the All Blacks three years ago, Asafo Aumua finally got his long-awaited test debut against the Wallabies in Bledisloe Cup IV.

There wasn’t much to write about in his 10-minute cameo appearance off the bench in the 24-22 defeat, though, and he will aim for significantly more game time in 2021.

Props

Alex Hodgman: B

Appearances: 4

Points scored: 0

You would have been hard-pressed to find anyone who would have picked Alex Hodgman to become an All Black in 2020, but the 27-year-old rookie has accustomed himself well on the international stage.

A no-frills, hard-working player, the four-test loosehead prop was a regular in New Zealand’s match day squad, regularly coming off the bench to provide cover for Joe Moody and Karl Tu’inukuafe.

Was a casualty in the postmortem from the Argentina defeat, but has laid the foundations for an even better campaign in 2021 with a tackle rate of 77 percent, 12 percent of which were dominant hits.

Joe Moody: B-

Appearances: 4

Points scored: 0

A nasty concussion sustained in the 27-7 Bledisloe II win at Eden Park limited Joe Moody’s involvement early on in the Tri-Nations, but a return to action was ill-fated when he was named to start against Argentina in Sydney.

On the receiving end of a formidable Pumas forward pack who didn’t give an inch, Moody bounced back strongly to dish up an admirable performance, particularly at scrum time, where he, Laulala and the locks put on an absolute clinic.

With a tackle success rate of 91 percent across the Tri-Nations, it was an appropriate way for him to celebrate his 50th cap, and saved him from possibly grading lower than what he has received.

https://twitter.com/RugbyPass/status/1333212416755212289

Nepo Laulala: B-

Appearances: 3

Points scored: 0

It’s little coincidence the All Blacks’ scrum was so dominant against Los Pumas in the 38-0 win on Saturday with Nepo Laulala back in the starting lineup.

Having missed the opening two matches of the Tri-Nations through paternity leave, the 29-year-old was emphatic in his first and only test start of the year after returning to the fray in the previous fortnight’s defeat via the bench.

On both occasions, his value at the set piece was clear to see, and it will be interesting to see if he can wrestle starting duties at tighthead prop back off Ofa Tuungafasi next year.

Tyrel Lomax: C+

Appearances: 5

Points scored: 0

Considering where he stood in the nationwide selection scheme in the midst of last year’s World Cup frenzy, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to suggest Tyrel Lomax’s career has come on in leaps and bounds this year.

After earning a test debut against Japan in 2018, the 24-year-old tighthead prop was nowhere to be seen in the lead-up to the World Cup, only to add a further five caps to his name and gained valuable, tough, experience at international level in 2020.

Enduring a rough time at the scrum in the defeat to Argentina, Lomax was also lucky not to be red carded for a high tackle over the weekend.

He can thank Tuungafasi’s three-match ban for a similar offence and Laulala’s fatherhood duties for his extensive game time, of which he should be better for in the years ahead.

https://twitter.com/RugbyPass/status/1333158653197656064

Karl Tu’inukuafe: C

Appearances: 4

Points scored: 5 (1 try)

2020 was a bit of a mixed bag for one of the real cult heroes of rugby in New Zealand, who conceded three penalties and three turnovers while proving just as influential at the scrum.

All in all, though, Karl Tu’inukuafe should be happy to have added a further four tests to his name following his axing from the World Cup squad, but he should also understand there is plenty of work to be done if he is to usurp Moody and Hodgman.

On a brighter note, his maiden test try against the 43-5 victory in Bledisloe III was a memorable moment in a turbulent All Blacks campaign.

Ofa Tuungafasi: C-

Appearances: 4

Points scored: 0

Perhaps it’s a bit harsh to give Ofa Tuungafasi such a low grade considering that he was solid in his first three games against for the All Blacks this season.

However, there’s no getting around the red card he was served in Bledisloe IV for a high tackle on Wallabies debutant Tom Wright, leaving his team at a drastic disadvantage with not even half an hour on the board.

His performances in the three games before that weren’t good enough to secure a better grading than the one he has been given here, undoing much of his good work prior that established himself as the best tighthead in New Zealand.

George Bower: N/A

Appearances: 0

Points scored: 0

Called up to the travelling Tri-Nations squad as cover for Nepo Laulala, who was absent for the opening few weeks due to paternity leave, uncapped Otago prop George Bower didn’t feature at all across the five weeks in Australia.

That in itself opens a can of worms as to whether calling on his service, and those of others as well, was necessary as it stripped their Mitre 10 Cup provinces of star power. 

Nevertheless, Bower’s promotion to the national squad is a good reward for his notable showings off the pine for the Crusaders and shows where he stands in the pecking order.

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Locks

Sam Whitelock: B-

Appearances: 5

Points scored: 0

Safe yet unspectacular throughout the season, although Sam Whitelock’s performance against the Wallabies in Bledisloe III was very good, with the 32-year-old leading the All Blacks in lineout takes (22), tackling at 91 percent and pinching four turnovers.

Now the most seasoned veteran in the All Blacks squad, Sam Whitelock drew on his vast experience to help guide this youthful side out of their slump in form through his own taste of back-to-back test defeats in 2011.

It’s that sort of leadership that could prove vital further down the line in this World Cup cycle, but for now, his work rate around the breakdown, defence and at the set piece has been an important cog in Foster’s faltering All Blacks machine.

Tupou Vaa’i: B-

Appearances: 4

Points scored: 5 (1 try)

Catapulting from a tradesman without a Super Rugby contract to an All Black in the space of a matter of months was unexpected enough for 20-year-old rookie Tupou Vaa’i, but what shocked just as much was the way he played in the black jersey.

The youngster was so enthusiastic every time he took to the field for the All Blacks both in New Zealand and Australia, holding his own very well when asked to start in the place of Sam Whitelock in Bledisloe II.

That enthusiasm may have gone a touch overboard in his debut the week beforehand, but the impetus he brought of the bench in the losses to the Wallabies and Los Pumas were exactly what the All Blacks were craving in the under-firing pack.

Growing in confidence with every outing, it would have been nice to see Vaa’i handed another start, especially when he failed to miss a tackle across all four matches, but the sky remains the limit for this kid.

Scott Barrett: C+

Appearances: 4

Points scored: 0

One of the villains from Bledisloe IV, Scott Barrett was otherwise not too bad in an international campaign that came on the back of months without action after he was ruled out of the Super Rugby Aotearoa season through injury.

A return came via the bench in Bledisloe II, but his first start of the year in Brisbane was marred by the stupid yellow card he conceded that put his side under pressure in the decisive final 10 minutes.

Like Coles and Tuungafasi, that’s hard to look past when evaluating his 2020, but, after being dropped from the first Argentina test for his indiscretion, he came back over the weekend to put in a good shift as part of a dominant All Blacks pack.

https://twitter.com/RugbyPass/status/1332897569987497985

Patrick Tuipulotu: C+

Appearances: 5

Points scored: 5 (1 try)

In the absence of the injured Barrett, Tuipulotu’s stocks rose immensely during Super Rugby Aotearoa as he played like a man possessed for the Blues.

His heavy-hitting defence and strong ball-carrying didn’t translate as seamlessly into the test arena, though, as he struggled to impose himself as dominantly – especially in the loss to Los Pumas.

Tuipulotu was thus demoted to the bench and replaced in the starting side by Barrett on Saturday, an indicator that his place in the starting team has been lost, meaning his biggest work-on is to bring his Super Rugby form to test rugby on a consistent basis.

Still, with 16 lineout takes, the second-most among all All Blacks in the Tri-Nations, a tackle rate of 87 percent – one-fifth of those tackles being dominant – and three turnovers won, there were positives Tuipulotu can take out of his campaign.

Quinten Strange: N/A

Appearances: 0

Points scored: 0

One of the new faces named in Ian Foster’s initial All Blacks squad in the wake of the North vs South clash, Quinten Strange’s hopes of a test debut were shot down just weeks later when he was forced to leave the camp with an ankle injury.

Curiously, the 24-year-old was thought to have been ruled out for six-to-eight weeks, and therefore most of the All Blacks season, but starred for Tasman en route to their Mitre 10 Cup title, yet wasn’t recalled back into the national setup.

Mitchell Dunshea: N/A

Appearances: 0

Points scored: 0

Similarly to Bower, uncapped Canterbury lock Mitchell Dunshea was plucked from the Mitre 10 Cup for the entire Tri-Nations campaign as an injury replacement for Strange, but wasn’t used once.

Again, questions should be asked if his precautionary inclusion was needed at all.

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All Blacks end-of-year player grades: How the All Blacks' tight five stars rated in 2020

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