Coming season career-defining for two of the All Blacks' finest of 2021
While it’s true that most national sides begin preparations for one World Cup almost as soon as the champion is determined for the previous tournament, history has shown that what happens in the one, two and three years preceding the World Cup can sometimes have very little bearing on the outcome of rugby’s flagship competition.
In 2017, the Springboks were in disarray. After two years in charge of the side, Alister Coetzee had managed a 44 per cent win-rate and the South Africa Rugby Union wisely made the decision to bring in Rassie Erasmus, who managed to turn the team around over the next two seasons – but even that wasn’t instantaneous, and it was only really in the 2019 World Cup where the Springboks actually found their peak.
So although the All Blacks didn’t exactly set the world on fire in 2021, despite commanding the highest win percentage of any tier-one side, the ‘poor results’ from last year can very quickly be converted into successes and even if 2022 also doesn’t go to plan, that shouldn’t rule NZ out from notching up a fourth World Cup title a year later.
While 2022 won’t necessarily be pivotal for the All Blacks as a whole, it does loom as a crucial year for a number of key players in the wider squad. The fact that over 40 players were used by Ian Foster last season means there will be a number of unlucky men who miss out on selection this year, and it might not be the ones that many expect.
Crucially, some up-and-coming youngsters really stepped up to the plate when given opportunities in the black jersey and the coming Super Rugby Pacific season looms as a potential springboard for them to announce that they should just be considered backup options to All Black incumbents.
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On the flip side, there are men who will be under pressure to prove that 2021 was a blip on the radar, that they weren’t up to their usual standards due to the unusual nature of the season, as opposed to anything intrinsic.
The two players who probably best advanced their cases last season, despite having considerably more experienced men ahead of them in the pecking order, were hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho and flanker Dalton Papalii.
Taukei’aho wasn’t even named in the initial squad but an early injury to Asafo Aumua saw the Chiefs hooker called up part-way through the July series. When Dane Coles went down during the pre-game warm-up ahead of NZ’s second test of the year, Taukei’aho stepped into the bench role and quickly impressed with his physicality off the bench.
Taukaie’aho managed just one start throughout the campaign – against Argentina at Brisbane – but he made eight appearances from the reserves, adding value with every late-game appearance. That was no more evident than in the All Blacks’ final game of the season against France, where the young rake was perhaps New Zealand’s best performer in the final quarter and the only man who never took a backwards step.
Of course, there are two very experienced men ahead of Taukei’aho in the hooking stocks, Codie Taylor and Dane Coles. The latter had limited opportunities in 2021, partially due to injury and partially due to remaining in NZ during the Rugby Championship, while the former was somewhat out of sorts during the season.
While Coles is still a strong performer and was arguably the All Blacks’ top hooker in 2020, it’s difficult to envisage a situation where the 35-year-old is the team’s first-choice No 2 at the 2023 World Cup, which means 2022 shapes as a straight battle between Taylor and Taukei’aho to determine who should be running out in the All Blacks’ starting line-up.
You would back Taylor to bounce back strongly with a more traditional season hopefully ahead of us but Taukei’aho’s taste of test rugby will have only made him hungrier.
It’s a similar story in the loose forwards, with Papalii getting an extended run at openside flanker thanks to the absence of injured captain Sam Cane.
Cane is an exceptional player – let’s make that clear right off the bat. The Chiefs loose forward is one of the most punishing defenders in New Zealand, regularly tops tackle counts and is a leader of the highest calibre. When Cane isn’t on the park, his team suffers – as was evident during the formative stages of the 2019 World Cup semi-final loss to England. Unfortunately, many fans and critics have short memories and when Cane is unavailable, it’s often forgotten how formidable a player he is.
All that being said, 2021 was a coming-of-age season for Papalii, who was one of the All Blacks’ strongest and most consistent players throughout their campaign. Had the coaches decided to return Ardie Savea to the No 7 jersey, it could have been another season of bit-part contributions for Papalii but he was instead given plenty of opportunities in his preferred openside flanker role and flourished with the responsibilities.
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Cane remains the incumbent, however, and while it’s not out of the realms of possibility that all three of Savea, Papalii and Cane are used in one loose forward trio, it probably wouldn’t quite have the balance the selectors will be looking for.
It wouldn’t be right to turf Papalii out of the starting side after such an impressive run of performances last season simply because Cane is back in action but if everyone is fit, Foster and co are going to have to make some big decisions – and it could well be that Super Rugby form dictates selections.
Come 2023, Papalii will be 26 and have more than enough experience under his belt to help the All Blacks to a fourth World Cup title, provided he’s given opportunities to advance his case in the meantime. Cane may be the captain, but is he still going to be the best man for the job in almost two years’ time?
Ian Foster will be watching the coming Super Rugby Pacific season with great interest because after 2021, he and his fellow coaches will now be more acutely aware of where the All Blacks are lacking and the men who travelled to Europe last season will have been given plenty of work-ons for the season ahead.
2022 looms as a definitive season. Perhaps not for the All Blacks as a whole, but certainly for the individuals that make up the team.
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