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All Blacks player ratings: Savea the stand-out in a so-so year for locks and loosies

By Tom Vinicombe
Ardie Savea and Tupou Vaa'i. (Photos by Getty Images)

After a disastrous start to the season, dropping three of their first four games, the All Blacks fought their way to third spot on the World Rugby rankings off the back of six wins and a draw and the tail-end of their campaign.

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Gauging where the team is now compared to the start of the season is a difficult task, however, given the disparate strengths of the opposition faced either side of the season.

Ireland and South Africa – who collectively inflicted three defeats on New Zealand – will be contenders at next year’s Rugby World Cup. The likes of Australia, Scotland and Wales, however, will rightly be rank outsiders.

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Regardless of the team’s overall standing, there were certainly a number of players who advanced their cases for selection throughout the season – and a number of men who may well have played their final Tests.

This week, RugbyPass will be rating the performances of the All Blacks throughout the season. Today we look at how the locks and back-rowers faired in 2022.

Locks

Scott Barrett – 7/10
Played: 10 (10 starts)
Best performance: England

2022 was perhaps Barrett’s best in a black jersey, with the 29-year-old earning the most appearances (and comfortably the most starts) of any campaign in his Test career to date. Whether tasked with packing down in the second row or on the blindside flank, Barrett was a consistently strong performer (bar one poor showing against South Africa in Mbombela) and the utility forward should have earned himself a permanent spot in the run-on side, regardless of which jersey he has on his back. Next year could be Barrett’s opportunity to announce himself as world-class.

Josh Lord – N/A
Played: 0

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Lord’s season was over before it started, with the youngster rupturing his ACL ahead of the Test season. It was a real shame because Lord was one of New Zealand’s top three locks throughout Super Rugby Pacific and was on track to make a big impact in black.

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Brodie Retallick – 7
Played: 11 (10 starts)
Best performance: Australia II

While New Zealand’s locks were all relatively reliable throughout the season, they didn’t reach the dizzying heights of years gone by, and nobody exemplified that more than Retallick. Injury and suspension robbed him from stringing together more than three starts in a row at any stage of the season and that perhaps contributed to the former World Rugby Player of the Year never finding his top form. His best performances of the year came in back-to-back efforts against the Wallabies but it’s against the likes of Ireland and South Africa where Retallick needed to step up, but he was still finding his feet against the former and was unavailable for the latter.

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Tupou Vaa’i – 5
Played: 8 (1 start)
Best performance: Japan

Just twice throughout the season did Vaa’i manage to get more than a handful of minutes in a match, and it would be difficult to argue that the 22-year-old has made any significant strides in his game throughout the year. Many hoped Vaa’i would be pushing his senior locking rivals for game time but that simply never eventuated, with the selectors not trusting the youngster against any of the formidable foes (or even the likes of Australia, Argentina, Wales or Scotland), handing him one solitary start against Japan. After debuting in 2020, Vaa’i is yet to really kick on – and that should be a massive disappointment for all involved.

Sam Whitelock – 7
Played: 11 (11 starts)
Best performance: South Africa II

Whitelock’s best years as a ball-carrying lock may well and truly be behind him, but he’s still clearly one of the top lineout operators in the world and the All Blacks are a far less formidable beast without their senior second-rower packing down in the engine room. Although Whitelock struggled in the losses to Ireland and South Africa – like many of his teammates – he had a massive game in Johannesburg and was a big factor in NZ grabbing an unexpected win. While there were few ‘wow’ showings from the 34-year-old, he maintained his standards throughout the season and the All Blacks won’t succeed at France 2023 without him.

Josh Dickson – N/A
Played: 0

Dickson was called into the All Blacks squad at various stages throughout the season, most notably while the team toured South Africa, but was never named to take the field. At 28 years of age, it’s difficult to see Dickson ever grabbing that coveted first cap unless injuries strike next year.

Patrick Tuipulotu – N/A
Played: 2 (o starts)

Having spent the club season in Japan, Tuipulotu was always at long odds to force his way back into a highly contested locking spot with the national side. Injuries and illness paved the way for the 43-Test veteran to make his return off the pine against Ireland but he was forced back onto the sidelines for much of the season before getting one final opportunity against Japan. A big seasons for the Blues in 2023 might push the experienced option back ahead of Vaa’i in the pecking order.

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Loose forwards

Sam Cane – 6
Played: 9 (9 starts)
Best performance: Argentina II

Cane will never receive the plaudits he deserves for all the work he does on the field, with fans preferring to focus on the flashy work – something which has never been part of the All Blacks captain’s repertoire. That being said, 2022 was not a vintage season for the 30-year-old, even with some consistent minutes under his belt. Cane should find his place under serious threat next year with Dalton Papali’i generally hitting all the right notes in his few opportunities in the No 7 jersey. That wouldn’t necessarily be the case if Cane could constantly match the highs of his performances against South Africa at Ellis Park and Argentina in Hamilton, however – and that will be his good for 2023.

Akira Ioane – 6
Played: 8 (4 starts)
Best performance: Ireland III

Ioane’s always been known as a bit of a flat-track bully – someone who can boss the Australians around the field but who can’t measure up to the bigger loose forwards out of South Africa and Europe. For that reason, it was such a relief to see Ioane have a strong game against Ireland in July, even if his teammates couldn’t match his performance. Ioane didn’t kick on in South Africa, however, delivering a sub-par showing in Mbombela and then effectively losing his place in the top side to Shannon Frizell for the remainder of the year. Would the All Blacks be able to count on Ioane in a World Cup knock-out match? The jury remains out.

Dalton Papali’i – 7
Played: 10 (5 starts)
Best performance: Wales

Papali’i is a man who delivers his best performances when he knows he’s going to get some consistent rugby. That was the case in the latter half of last year, and it was also the case on the 2022 end-of-year tour, when Sam Cane was out through injury and Papali’i was able to string together some solid minutes from the get-go, instead of being tasked with entering the fray from the bench. While he couldn’t deliver the same performance against Scotland and England as he mustered against Wales, the selectors will be comfortable knowing that Papali’i can step into the No 7 role if needed – and might even be the best man for the job.

Ardie Savea – 8
Played: 11 (11 starts)
Best performance: Wales

Savea was a man-possessed throughout 2022 – par for the course, really. He was one of the All Blacks’ top performers in almost every match he played and while he wasn’t at his best against Ireland in Dunedin, South Africa in Mbombela or Argentina in Christchurch, the same could just as easily be said for his teammates. New Zealand would be lost without Savea and will be counting on the rampaging number 8 to carry the All Blacks on his shoulders in 2023. Might have missed out to Gregory Alldritt in World Rugby’s Team of the Year, but Savea was certainly there or thereabouts.

Hoskins Sotutu – 6
Played: 4 (2 starts)
Best performance: Australia I

Sotutu didn’t make his first appearance of the season until the All Blacks’ eighth match of their campaign and, as has been the case in the past, was a bit of a mixed bag. His talent in the open field was on display for all to see in the first Bledisloe Cup match but his decision-making wasn’t always up to snuff. A couple of token appearances on the end-of-year tour wouldn’t have done anything to suggest he’s a genuine starting option for the All Blacks and even a bench spot is probably out of reach at this stage. Like Ioane, could he be counted on to play against South Africa or Ireland in a knockout match? The selectors certainly don’t seem to think so.

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Pita Gus Sowakula – N/A
Played: 2 (0 starts)
Best performance: Ireland I

After a handy debut off the bench in the opening fixture of the season, Sowakula underperformed in the second Irish clash and was then dropped from the squad for the remainder of the season. He didn’t even make the All Blacks XV, illustrating how rapidly he’s fallen from grace. Perhaps it had something to do with the All Blacks changing forwards coaches but top dog Ian Foster shouldn’t have selected Sowakula in the first place if he wasn’t going to stick by his man.

Shannon Frizell – 6
Played: 8 (five starts)
Best performance: Argentina I

As with the rest of the fringe loose forwards, Frizell put in some handy performances throughout the season but wasn’t able to consistently shine. The coaches evidently see something they really like about the Highlander, however, as he forced his way into the top side for much of the year despite never really justifying his selection ahead of Akira Ioane. Apart from a few horror moments of the bench against South Africa (and one great one), Frizell was really just fine throughout.

Luke Jacobson – N/A
Played: 0

Jacobson was brought into the squad temporarily during the Bledisloe Cup series but didn’t take the field. He appears to have slipped down the pecking order and will face a mighty challenge to get himself back into the squad next year.

Billy Harmon – N/A
Played: 0

Another player to get a call-up on the end-of-year tour but never take the field, Harmon might have benefitted from remaining with the All Blacks XV.

Full ratings (to date)

Hookers:
Dane Coles – 4/10
Samisoni Taukei’aho – 8
Codie Taylor – 5
Asafo Aumua – N/A

Props:
Aidan Ross – N/A
George Bower – 6
Nepo Laulala – 4
Angus Ta’avao – 4
Ofa Tu’ungafasi – 5
Karl Tu’inukuafe – N/A
Tyrel Lomax – 7
Ethan de Groot – 6
Fletcher Newell – 5

Locks:
Scott Barrett – 7
Josh Lord – N/A
Brodie Retallick – 7
Tupou Vaa’i – 5
Sam Whitelock – 7
Josh Dickson – N/A
Patrick Tuipulotu – N/A

Loose forwards:
Sam Cane – 6
Akira Ioane – 6
Dalton Papali’i – 7
Ardie Savea – 8
Hoskins Sotutu – 6
Pita Gus Sowakula – N/A
Shannon Frizell – 6
Billy Harmon – N/A

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