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All Blacks player ratings: Which front-rowers proved stars in the making in 2022?

By Tom Vinicombe
Tyrel Lomax and Samisoni Taukei'aho. (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.

Over the next four days, RugbyPass will be rating the performances of the All Blacks throughout the season – starting with the front-rowers.

Hookers

Dane Coles – 4/10
Played: 4 (0 starts)
Best performance: Argentina II

Coles was relatively anonymous throughout the season, featuring just a handful of times off the bench for the All Blacks before succumbing to injury and missing the end-of-year tour. While he was strong off the pine in the second Test against Argentina, his terrible effort in the opening match of the Rugby Championship contributed to the All Blacks’ capitulation in the final quarter. It’s hard to imagine Coles will be fit for the World Cup next year and it’s hard to know whether he still has the goods for Test rugby.

Samisoni Taukei’aho – 8
Played: 12 (7 starts)
Best performance: South Africa I

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How Taukei’aho wasn’t starting at the beginning of the season after being the best hooker on 2021’s end-of-year tour and then maintaining his form through Super Rugby Pacific is anyone’s guess. It was clear when the Tongan-born rake was finally handed the No 2 jersey against the Springboks in Mbombela that he was the best man for the job and Taukei’aho was an absolute wrecking ball whenever he took the field. The match in Mbombela may not have actually been his strongest showing (his performances against Argentina in Hamilton and Australia in Melbourne were up there with the best), but given the intense pressure he faced throughout that fixture, it’s impossible to overlook. Eat your heart out Malcolm Marx, Samisoni Taukei’aho is the best hooker in the world at present.

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Codie Taylor – 5
Played: 10 (6 starts)
Best performance: Wales

If you were to rate Taylor on the first half of the season, he wouldn’t be playing another game of Test rugby. Against Ireland, South Africa and Argentina, Taylor was abysmal – there are no two ways about it – and that cost New Zealand dearly. The 31-year-old reinvigorated his career in the second half of the season, however, and the running game that had seemingly deserted him for the past two years reared up once more when the All Blacks arrived in Europe. If Taylor can maintain the standards he set against Wales and England, he will be a very handy asset at France 2023, whether starting or off the bench. That’s quite a big ‘if’, however.

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Asafo Aumua – N/A
Played: 0

Brought in as cover for Dane Coles on the end-of-year tour, Aumua was never trusted to take the field (nor was he selected in the match-day 23). Would he have been better off sticking with the All Blacks XV? Probably.

Props

Aidan Ross – N/A
Played: 1 (0 starts)
Best performance: Ireland II

One of a handful of players to get little more than a few bench opportunities. Ross was dropped by the All Blacks ahead of their European tour, instead dirt-tracking it with the All Blacks XV, and never really got the opportunity to show his worth for the national side. An injury ahead of the third Ireland Test (when he was originally named on the bench) didn’t help his chances, and then squad replacement Ethan de Groot was given the first opportunity in South Africa and took it with open arms.

George Bower – 6
Played: 11 (5 starts)
Best performance: Ireland I

With Joe Moody injured, Bower started the season as the All Blacks’ first-choice loosehead and while he kicked things off with a bang in the win over Ireland, his work in the subsequent three Tests was sub-standard, and he was relegated to the bench role. Bower found some form in the latter half of the season – like many of his teammates – although had a bit of a stinker against Japan, and is still a much better ball-running prop than any of his loosehead rivals, but it would be hard to argue he can front it with with the top tightheads in the world come scrum-time, making him somewhat of a risky selection against the likes of England, Ireland, South Africa and even Australia.

Nepo Laulala – 4
Played: 5 (3 starts)
Best performance: Scotland

Nepo Laulala remains an international-level scrummager – but that’s effectively all he offers now. He’ll hit a few rucks and make a couple of front-on tackles but the rest of his work around the field is dire. On defence, he’s especially easy to exploit – as Marcus Smith illustrated over the weekend – and while Laulala has served his country well in the past, his position in the All Blacks is no longer tenable. Expect the 45-Test World Cup-winner to be a high-profile (although completely expected) omission ahead of next year’s World Cup.

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Angus Ta’avao – 4
Played: 3 (1 start)
Best performance: Ireland 1

Similar to Bower, Ta’avao offers some nice subtle skills around the park but his scrummaging leaves much to be desired. While he had no issues in the first Test of the season, Ta’avao simply could not compete with Trevor Nyakane in Mbombela and was pulled early in the match – his final appearance of the year, as it were, and maybe the final of his career. Being able to compete with only the weaker looseheads means the selectors simply won’t be willing to utilise Ta’avao in knock-out stages of the World Cup.

Ofa Tu’ungafasi – 5
Played: 6 (2 starts)
Best performance: Ireland 1

One of the great enigmas of global rugby. Despite spending almost all of the Super Rugby Pacific season on the tighthead and notching up his first few Tests of the year in that role, Tu’ungafasi was used exclusively on the loosehead in the latter half of the season, upon his return from injury. Tu’ungafasi could be one of the greats but he’s never managed to carry his Blues form into the black jersey, and that was evident again in 2022. A disrupted year didn’t help, with Tu’ungafasi out for much of the Rugby Championship, but the selectors will once again be wondering what they need to do to bring the best out of the 30-year-old.

Karl Tu’inukuafe – N/A
Played: 2 (0 starts)
Best performance: Ireland I

With Ethan de Groot sent away to work on his fitness, the soon-to-be departing Karl Tu’inukuafe was used twice off the pine by the All Blacks in July. Doing nothing to shirk his reputation, Tu’inukuafe was strong at scrum-time and spent the rest of his minutes on the field jogging from breakdown to breakdown and dropping the odd player that ran into his path. Tu’inukuafe filled a hole for the All Blacks and should be saluted for his time in the jersey – but that time is over.

Tyrel Lomax – 7
Played: 9 (7 starts)
Best performance: Australia II

What a year 2022 was for Tyrel Lomax. After never really convincing at Super Rugby level but still earning Test selection for the past two seasons, Lomax was finally dropped ahead of this year’s campaign. When both Tu’ungafasi and Laulala went down injured, however, Lomax found himself back in the squad – and he certainly made the most of his opportunity. The set-piece rarely faltered with Lomax on deck and he offers more around the park than many of his positional rivals – and there’s still plenty of room for the 26-year-old to grow. Lomax built into his year and after standing strong in the Rugby Championship, had an end-of-year tour to remember. Watch this space.

Ethan de Groot – 6
Played: 9 (8 starts)
Best performance: Argentina I

Getting singled out for your lack of fitness has to sting, and that’s exactly what happened to De Groot at the beginning of the year. There was clearly much planning going on behind the scenes, however (and you suspect that De Groot was always set to rejoin the squad, regardless of whether or not he improved his fitness much), and the youngster had no trouble scrummaging against some of the best in the business when he finally returned to the fray. The only blight, however, is that De Groot didn’t necessarily showcase any skills or dynamism that prove him a more well-rounded prop than the likes of Laulala or Tu’inukuafe. Can Ethan de Groot stand up to the toughest of challenges at scrum-time? 2022 seemed to prove that to be the case. Does he offer anything else around the park at this stage of his career? Not so much.

Fletcher Newell – 5
Played: 6 (0 starts)
Best performance: Argentina I

It was a rapid rise for Newell in 2022, with injuries paving the way for one of the form props in Super Rugby Pacific to eventually make his debut off the bench against the Springboks in Ellis Park – they don’t come much crazier than that. Like De Groot, Newell still has to prove that he’s capable of being more than just an immovable object. There were a couple of subtle passes from Newell throughout his time on the park but they were few and far between, with the youngster normally sticking to his core duties before getting too involved in the open-field play. Still, Newell generally held his own and caused problems for opposition props on a few occasions, most notably against Argentina in Christchurch and Wales on the end-of-year tour.

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