As the All Blacks season comes to a close with the Bledisloe Cup and Tri-Nations title in tow, we look back on how members of Ian Foster’s squad fared over the course of the year.

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In the third of four instalments, we assess the seasons of the inside backs in the Bledisloe Cup and Tri-Nations campaigns and give them an old-fashioned school report card grading for their efforts.

Halfbacks

Aaron Smith: B+

Appearances: 5

Points scored: 10 (2 tries)

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It won’t go down as his best season in an All Blacks jersey of all-time, but, if anything, Aaron Smith strengthened his iron grip at the summit of New Zealand’s halfback pecking order this year.

No other No. 9 in the country comes close to the 97-test veteran in terms of the impact he wields over this side through his passing game, box kicking, option-taking and pure energy, and the All Blacks would have been a lot worse without him this year.

It’s no coincidence the All Blacks lost to the Wallabies in Brisbane without Smith in the match day side, and although he couldn’t guide them to victory a week later against Argentina, he was emphatic in every other game of the international season.

With Smith’s contract due to expire at the end of next year, the All Blacks desperately need to uncover a long-term replacement for one of the game’s greatest halfbacks.

TJ Perenara: C

Appearances: 5

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Points scored: 0

It is clear that TJ Perenara has his strengths through his running game, physicality and defence, but for a side that thrives under the skill set that Smith possesses, it has proven difficult for the former to imprint himself as well as the latter.

It didn’t help that he well off pace during his rare start in the defeat to the Wallabies, as he was guilty of poor kicking, sloppy passing and ill-discipline, all of which cost him a place in the match day side that faced Argentina a week later.

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Without a standout performance off the bench to alleviate his showing in Brisbane, Perenara has been handed a lowly grade, which some – those who argued against criticism of the 28-year-old in the Bledisloe IV postmortem – may find harsh.

How the 69-test star bounces back from this underwhelming campaign holds plenty of intrigue, especially when he’s set to miss next year’s Super Rugby through his Top League sabbatical in Japan.

Brad Weber: C

Appearances: 2

Points scored: 0

All Blacks boss Ian Foster drew plenty of critics for a variety of different reasons this year, but one of those criticisms that perhaps flew under the radar was how infrequently Brad Weber was used all season.

If Smith is the benchmark of how the All Blacks want their halfbacks to play, then Weber is probably the next best player in New Zealand to fill that role given the speed he plays at and delivery of his passing.

Why, many people then asked, did the diminutive Chiefs No. 9 only get 21 minutes of action from two bench outings across just over a month-and-a-half of fixtures?

Three minutes in the loss against the Wallabies followed by 18 minutes in the defeat against Los Pumas hardly does Weber’s talents justice, so it will be interesting to see if he is compensated for playing time in 2021.

First-Fives

Richie Mo’unga: B

Appearances: 5

Points scored: 48 (2 tries, 13 conversions, 4 penalties)

The All Blacks’ first-choice first-five endured a mixed bag this year, acting as the undoubted star in Bledisloe III as he put the Wallabies to the sword with his exquisite attacking play while also battling to assert his influence in the loss to Argentina.

Mo’unga’s performance at ANZ Stadium showed what he’s capable of when he’s on song, bringing his electric Super Rugby form with the Crusaders onto the international stage to slice the Wallabies apart as he scored and set up tries at will.

In stark contrast, the 26-year-old struggled to make things happen at Bankwest Stadium as his playmaking lacked variety, while the absence of Beauden Barrett at fullback appeared to hamper his output in Bledisloe I.

However, he showed plenty of nice touches in both Bledisloe II and in the rematch against the Pumas in Newcastle, and it’s hard to see Ian Foster wavering from Mo’unga’s partnership with Barrett any time soon.

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Midfielders

Anton Lienert-Brown: B+

Appearances: 5

Points scored: 0

One of the most consistent players in the All Blacks squad this year, Anton Lienert-Brown finished the test season as New Zealand’s best midfielder.

Solid yet unspectacular, the 25-year-old went about his work in his normal, dependable fashion, starring as one of the most consistent players in the black jersey.

A rare lack of composure surfaced in the defeat to the Wallabies in Brisbane, a match where the Australians got under the skins of many All Blacks, but overall it was an admirable effort from Lienert-Brown in 2020.

His efforts were epitomised in the words of two-test All Blacks hooker James Parsons, who last month told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod that Lienert-Brown would act as the only Kiwi challenger to Sam Cane for World Rugby Player of the Year.

Rieko Ioane: C+

Appearances: 5

Points scored: 10 (2 tries)

The younger, more experienced Ioane brother wasn’t efficient as Akira in his outings for the All Blacks, with the infamous dropped ball over the tryline the cause of much frustration in his side’s Bledisloe I draw in Wellington.

A sloppy appearance off the bench against Argentina in Sydney was emblematic of his side’s woes in that match, but found his try-scoring mojo in back-to-back weeks against the Wallabies and looked handy off the bench against Los Pumas in Newcastle.

Used at both wing and centre throughout the year, it will be interesting to see whether Ioane can challenge Clarke for the No. 11 jersey, or if he will be re-deployed in the midfield again next year.

Jack Goodhue: C+

Appearances: 5

Points scored: 0

Predominantly used as a centre throughout his career, Jack Goodhue was used solely as a second-five by Foster on the back of his performances in that position for the Crusaders.

The problem is Goodhue doesn’t really excel in the No. 12 jersey as he does while wearing No. 13, especially when he possesses a very similar skill set to his midfield partner Anton Lienert-Brown.

He exploited Australia’s inexperienced inside back combo well in Bledisloe III and was solid in the first and last tests of the year, but Goodhue’s place as a No. 12 might come under review with Ngani Laumape and Peter Umaga-Jensen waiting in the wings.

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Ngani Laumape: C

Appearances: 2

Points scored: 0

Welcomed back into the squad after fully recovering from a fractured forearm picked up during a sensational Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign with the Hurricanes, Ngani Laumape struggled to seize his opportunities in the test arena.

After featuring off the bench in Bledisloe III, Laumape was a starter at Suncorp Stadium the following week, but failed to fire in his first test start in well over a year.

Perhaps it was a lack of match fitness after a lengthy injury layoff, but the second-five will want to do better next year, especially with Goodhue’s place in the No. 12 jersey by no means secure.

Peter Umaga-Jensen: C

Appearances: 1

Points scored: 0

Called into the side as Braydon Ennor’s injury replacement, Peter Umaga-Jensen was then thrust into the match day side for Bledisloe II after Ioane was ruled unavailable.

Named on the bench on the back of a coming-of-age Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign with the Hurricanes, the 22-year-old made his test debut at Eden Park and acquitted himself well on the international stage.

Coming on in place of the blood-binned Lienert-Brown, Umaga-Jensen made two cameo appearances on either side of half-time before being forced from the field himself with a head knock, making it hard to grade him higher that what he has been given.

However, he showed evidence to suggest he belongs at that level of the game through his powerful ball-carrying, and could form a dynamite midfield combo with Laumape for the Hurricanes next year.

Braydon Ennor: N/A

Appearances: 0

Points scored: 0

Named in the initial All Blacks squad of the year following the North vs South game, Braydon Ennor’s test season came to an end before it even started thanks to a ruptured ACL sustained in the inter-island derby.

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