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An inexperienced All Blacks XV shows the unprecedented depth of New Zealand rugby in 2021

By Tom Vinicombe
David Havili and Hoskins Sotutu. (Photos by Getty Images)

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While the merits of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman are yet to be determined, there’s reason to believe the New Zealand teams are performing at a higher standard than ever before.

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Eight rounds of gruelling Super Rugby Aotearoa action has helped mould young players into battle-hardened performers with the likes of Scott Robertson suggesting that the New Zealand-only competition was of test match intensity.

There were some casualties, with Sam Cane and Jack Goodhue unlikely to feature for the All Blacks this year, but it’s also prepared the next generation of talent for the highest level of the game.

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With the All Blacks, Maori All Blacks and the new All Blacks XV all set to play matches this year, a huge number of Kiwi players will have opportunities to impress on the international stage.

Many of the youngsters currently turning out for their Super Rugby sides will likely feature in the national team, but how would a side composed of players with only limited experience at test level fare against the likes of the Wallabies, Springboks and Pumas?

Last year, Australia blooded men such as Harry Wilson and Hunter Paisami who took to test rugby like ducks to water while New Zealand retained the bulk of their side from 2019, complementing it with the undeniable X-factor of players like Hoskins Sotutu and Will Jordan.

What if New Zealand could only select players with limited appearances, however?

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There wouldn’t be too many issues in the front row.

Hookers Asafo Aumua (1 test cap) and Samisoni Taukei’aho have been the pick of the young bunch this year. Aumua is a certain selection for the All Blacks later this season while Taukei’aho is perhaps the best close-range ball-running front-rower in New Zealand – but still has to develop his lineout delivery.

If you’re looking for more experience, however, 32-year-old Ash Dixon is long in the tooth and would be worth a look-in if the World Cup were kicking off tomorrow.

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Young loosehead props Ethan de Groot and Ollie Norris have shown technique and power beyond their years at scrum time while they’ve also offered some of the dynamism around the park that’s become so desirable for props in recent times.

2020 All Black Alex Hodgman (4) is still a relative newbie in international terms but could be pipped by the Chiefs’ Aidan Ross for a spot in the national team this year. Ross has been at the forefront of the Chiefs’ scrummaging resurgence while Hodgman has been languishing on the sidelines due to a suspension brought about by a dangerous tackle against the Highlanders last month.

Crusader George Bower also found himself amongst the All Blacks squad last year but didn’t earn any minutes for the team and is another that could make the step up in 2021.

On the tighthead side of the scrum, the Hurricanes’ Tyrel Lomax (6) made his test debut in 2018 but hasn’t flourished this season and has been bent out of shape in the set-piece by some of the aforementioned looseheads.

The recently returned Atu Moli (4) could be due an All Blacks recall if he can get some minutes under his belt after making his first appearance in over a year for the Chiefs on Saturday due to major hip surgery.

There’s huge depth in the second row for New Zealand, with Tupou Vaa’i (4) leading the pack and closely followed by the Crusaders’ Mitch Dunshea. Fellow youngsters Quinten Strange and Sam Darry are also hampered only by the slightly more experienced players ahead of them in the queue while Manaaki Selby-Rickit of the Highlanders earned selection in last year’s North v South match.

There’s also no shortage of back-row talent gunning for national selection.

Luke Jacobson (2), Hoskins Sotutu (5) and Dalton Papalii (4) will all push their test counts up this season while the likes of Akira Ioane (2) and Cullen Grace (1) are bound to get more opportunities at some stage.

There’s also a lot to like about uncapped ball-runners Ethan Blackadder and Pita Gus Sowakula while the openside trio of Lachlan Boshier, Du’Plessis Kirifi and the injured Tom Christie would all do the black jersey proud.

Despite playing a handful of campaigns with the All Blacks, Chiefs captain Brad Weber has just seven appearances to his name.

Just beneath him are the likes of Mitch Drummond (1) and Bryn Hall while Folau Fakatava would likely have earned his first cap for New Zealand this year if injury hadn’t robbed him of his season.

There are no obvious selections at No 10, but Otere Black is probably the most reliable first five running around in New Zealand right now who hasn’t worn black before.

Josh Ioane (1) has run hot and cold over the past 12 months and has probably played his best rugby from the fullback jersey while Mitch Hunt and Kaleb Trask have had their moments for the Highlanders and Chiefs, respectively.

He may need another season under his belt, but the Hurricanes’ Ruben Love has shown glimmers of potential at first five this season and is one to watch for the future.

26-year-old David Havili (3) has been one of the players of the season to date and despite favouring the fullback position, is likely being lined up as a midfield option for the All Blacks. His current centres partner, Braydon Ennor (1), has recently returned from injury and will likely be brought back into the squad due to the looming departure of Ngani Laumape and the injury to Goodhue.

Hurricane Peter Umaga-Jensen (1) hasn’t had many chances to advance his case this season but will likely be there or thereabouts when the All Blacks are named later this year.

Leicester Fainga’anuku must be nearing selection too – but perhaps he’ll be asked to play on the left wing in the potential absence of George Bridge. Jona Nareki has also torn up defences at times this year while Caleb Clarke (5) has found 2021 tough going but will return fresh and reinvigorated from his time with the national sevens team. The hot-stepping Etene Nanai-Seturo has also joined the NZ sevens are some solid form for the Chiefs this year.

Salesi Rayasi, meanwhile, has turned down the opportunity to travel to the Olympics, instead focussing on improving with the Hurricanes.

On the right, Seve Reece (8) has re-found his best form for the Crusaders while Mark Telea has stagnated in the latter half of the season with the Blues.

At fullback, it would be impossible to go past Will Jordan (2), who’s been a bit up and down this year but has looked sublime at times for the Crusaders. 20-year-old Zarn Sullivan is another for the future.

An inexperienced All Blacks team (Fewer than 10 caps):

1. Aidan Ross (uncapped)
2. Ash Dixon (uncapped)
3. Atu Moli (4)
4. Tupou Vaa’i (4)
5. Mitch Dunshea (uncapped)
6. Luke Jacobson (2)
7. Dalton Papalii (4)
8. Hoskins Sotutu (5)
9. Brad Weber (7)
10. Josh Ioane (1)
11. Caleb Clarke (5)
12. David Havili (3)
13. Braydon Ennor (1)
14. Sevu Reece (8)
15. Will Jordan (2)

16. Asafo Aumua (1)
17. George Bower (uncapped)
18. Tyrel Lomax (6)
19. Quinten Strange (uncapped)
20. Ethan Blackadder (uncapped)
21. Folau Fakatava (uncapped)
22. Otere Black (uncapped)
23. Leicester Fainga’anuku (uncapped)

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An inexperienced All Blacks XV shows the unprecedented depth of New Zealand rugby in 2021

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