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Early Super Rugby form should promise a shake-up of Foster's All Black backline

By Ben Smith
(Photos by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images and Joe Allison/Getty Images)

If Salesi Rayasi, Leicester Fainga’anuku and Caleb Clarke still find themselves behind George Bridge in the All Blacks pecking order this year, the selectors need a second or third look at the tape.

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The opening four rounds of Super Rugby Pacific has shown the stark difference in finishing abilities of New Zealand’s wing talent, with Rayasi and Fainga’anuku putting their hands up with a couple of hat-trick performances already.

It’s not the number of tries that should place them ahead of Bridge, but rather the specific instances where their tries have been scored against the odds.

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The kind of finishing ability you need in test rugby where tight windows are all that is offered and walk-ins are a rarity.

Rayasi’s hat-trick try against the Blues was top-drawer, finishing a half chance in the corner against the cover defence of Rieko Ioane and Harry Plummer.

It was a must-have try if the Hurricanes were any chance to come back in that game, and Rayasi delivered with a one-hand put down in the two-man tackle with his feet expertly raised in the air.

That’s the kind of skill we have consistently seen from Rayasi over the last couple of years that puts him in a different class when it comes to finishing.

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Fainga’anuku made waves with his own hat-trick the week beforehand while playing for the Crusaders against the Hurricanes.

Two of his tries were pure power finishes from close range, but the third was his best, taking a lineout play around the corner into the 10 channel where he beat Julian Savea all ends up to crash over.

Despite blowing a golden try-scoring opportunity against the Highlanders, Clarke has still shown flashes of his strength and power game.

Running against the grain against the Hurricanes, he sliced through two defenders with a great line to score under the posts.

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Power athletes like Rayasi, Fainga’anuku and Clarke were sorely missing from the left edge at the end of All Blacks’ backline in 2021.

Bridge is an admirable player but has not shown the ability to finish half chances in test rugby, and the aerial mishaps have been costly. The early stages of Super Rugby Pacific has highlighted the talent available in New Zealand’s playing stocks to provide more.

When Ireland visit New Zealand’s shores in July, the smaller Andrew Conway is likely to be their top right wing, and Hugo Keenan is likely to be the fullback.

At 90kg, those two would much rather tackle Bridge than Rayasi, Clarke or Fainga’anuku, one would imagine.

When the Irish last toured New Zealand, they were terrorised by a young wing named Julian Savea who had a field day with three tries on debut.

The selection of a powerful option at No. 11 will put Keenan and Conway under pressure to stop the same thing happening again.

It’s no secret that the All Blacks midfield lacks a power option to make the gain line consistency against the top-tier sides. David Havili is a skilled player but lacks size and power, while Rieko Ioane is more speed and style and isn’t often used in that capacity.

Highlanders second-five Thomas Umaga-Jensen has been an early standout with strong carrying, and it’s a shame his injury has dented his chances in the short-term, but hopefully he will back soon to push for selection by building on his early-season form.

After a subpar game at No. 12 in the opening round for the Hurricanes, Umaga-Jensen’s twin brother Peter has been a force to be reckoned with, coming off the bench as an impact player.

He was exceptional against the Blues, running hard to cause problems, and against the Highlanders, he came up with the decisive line break to set-up the winning try. Peter just creates plays out of nothing and is a phenomenal talent.

If the two twins were starting together in the same Super Rugby Pacific side at 12 and 13, what could they achieve together already having an innate understanding of one another?

It is the kind of partnership that, in top form, would command All Black selection and offer a powerful midfield combination that is missing from the Goodhue-Lienert-Brown, safe-but-sorry option that doesn’t take much to contain. It’s safe because they won’t let you down, but you’ll be sorry when it fails to spark much when you need a big play.

However, the double Umaga-Jensen combination is unlikely to eventuate at test level without regular action in Super Rugby Pacific together to put down a marker against the rest of the competition.

At the Blues, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has shown flashes with smart footwork and offloading. It is clear he will make something of the code switch in time, but his current shoulder injury will delay his development. Rieko Ioane still fits in as a centre option and has looked sharp in early season form.

Will Jordan commands selection in the starting All Blacks side at this stage as he is simply the best player in the country.

Although in damaging form at fullback for the Crusaders, right wing is likely to be his place outside of Jordie Barrett, who kicks goals and has proven to be a valuable asset under the high ball.

Those two add more size to the backline, they are equally strong and powerful in their own right, and never take a step back in contact.

The All Blacks’ best halves combination is Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett, two centurions with enough experience to guide their team and get the best out of the younger weapons outside of them.

Richie Mo’unga is Mr Super Rugby at this stage, a dynamo against the rest of New Zealand and a domino at international level against strong teams, falling flat. His time with the All Blacks is far from done, but Barrett offers more on the test stage.

The talent exists in New Zealand to build an All Blacks backline capable of running over the top of anyone with a tougher edge.

In some cases, work needs to be done on the defensive side of the ball, but with ball-in-hand, the destructive potential of a supersized line-up that doesn’t sacrifice skill or speed is possible.

At the very least, a handful of new selections can add missing ingredients to play different styles as required, as it is clear the current contingent are very limited against physical teams such as France and South Africa. A small-ball backline didn’t work in 2019, and 2021 proved it still doesn’t now.

For the All Blacks this season, change is an absolute necessity to get the team back to the top of the pile globally.

The Six Nations has shown that France and Ireland are Europe’s top two teams, and, funnily enough, they were the two sides that powered through Ian Foster’s men on the end-of-year tour.

It was clear that the All Blacks are now a long way off the pace from the leaders with last year’s squad. That might be due to personnel, coaching, or a mix of both.

The coaching staff has remained, so the only fix to try is the personnel this season by rewarding Super Rugby Pacific form to fill needs, and there is a glaring need for some more firepower out wide.

The counter argument to change is usually that the All Blacks need to find stability with selections just 18 months until the World Cup. That line of thinking is to simply ignore that the most recent squad simply wasn’t up to it last year against the best.

A side with the backbone of the ever-successful Crusaders had little to no cohesion in Foster’s structures in the big games.

It wasn’t that they lost, it was that they really struggled to gain control, haphazardly lumbered through periods of play as a disorganised unit and were soundly beaten. The manner in which they lost was telling.

The luxury of being the coach of the All Blacks is having these riches available to you. If Foster is prepared to let that go to waste to keep the bolts of Hansen’s old side together, the same result this year likely beckons.

This season of Super Rugby should lead to a refreshed and new-look All Black backline come July.

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finn 6 hours ago
Why the world needs a reverse Lions tour

I think there’s a lot of reasons this wouldn’t work, but if we’re just proposing fun things how about a “World Series” held the june/july following a world cup. The teams competing each four years would be: the current world champions The Pacific Islands The British & Irish Lions The World XV Barbarians FC to ensure all teams are fairly evenly matched, the current world champions would name their squad first; then The Pacific Islands would name next, and would be able to select any pacific qualified players not selected by the world champions, including players already “captured” by non-pacific nations who would otherwise have been eligible for selection (eg. Bundee Aki); the Lions would select next; and then The World XV and Barbarians FC would be left to fight over anyone not selected. Some people will point out that 5 teams is too many for a mid-year round robin, particularly as it would be nice to have a final as well; and they would be right! But because we’re just having fun here we’re going to innovate an entirely new format for rugby, where the round robin is played in one stadium over the course of one day, with each game lasting just 40 minutes with no half time or change of ends. The round robin decides the seedings for the knockouts, which are contested by all 5 teams in one stadium over the course of one day, according to the following schedule: Knockout Round 1: seed 5 v seed 4 (contested over 1 half of indetermined length, finishing when one team reaches 7 points) ~ 10 minute break ~ Quarter Final: winner of Round 1 v seed 3 (contested over 1 half of indetermined length, finishing when one team reaches 7 points) ~ 10 minute break ~ Semi Final: winner of Quarter Final v seed 2 (contested over 1 half of indetermined length, finishing when one team reaches 7 points) ~ 10 minute break ~ Final: winner of Semi Final v seed 1 (played as a standard 80 minute rugby match) for the round robin, teams would name a 15 man starting lineup and a 16 man bench. Substitutions during games can only be made for injuries, but any number of substitutions can be made between games. The same rules apply for the finals, except that we return to having a regular 8 man bench, and would allow substitutions as normal during the 80 minute final.

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