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.
In the final of the four instalments, we assess the seasons of the outside backs in the Bledisloe Cup and Tri-Nations campaigns and give them an old-fashioned school report card grading for their efforts.
Caleb Clarke: A
Points scored: 5 (1 try)
Few would have picked Caleb Clarke to win an All Blacks call-up so soon given his involvement in the All Blacks Sevens set-up ahead of the now-postponed Tokyo Olympics earlier this year, but most will agree his selection couldn’t have come sooner.
A week after catching many an eye off the bench when he came onto the field in place of Bridge in Bledisloe I, the 21-year-old drew comparisons to Jonah Lomu as he tore the Wallabies to pieces in Bledisloe II.
Those two matches solidified his place as New Zealand’s top left wing for the remainder of the season and for the foreseeable future, and Ian Foster will be very keen on ensuring Clarke isn’t lost to the Olympics during next year’s July test window.
Will Jordan: A-
Points scored: 10 (2 tries)
The best attacking player in Super Rugby Aotearoa had a debut to forget in Brisbane when he lasted just five minutes before succumbing to a head knock.
It took three weeks before Will Jordan was thrust back into the thick of things against Argentina in Newcastle, and it was there where the speed and guile that we all know he has was on full show in his 15-minute display.
Two tries in three minutes were enough for the 22-year-old to top the try-scoring, running metre and clean break stat categories, and he now looms as a frontrunner to fill the role as New Zealand’s impact bench player this World Cup cycle.
Beauden Barrett: B
Points scored: 0
A standout in his first two tests of the year, decidedly average in the following two losses and then okay in the last match in Newcastle – certainly not a vintage Beauden Barrett season by any stretch.
Whether it is his ongoing selection at fullback as part of a highly-scrutinised dual playmaking system, his failure to adapt to tightening defences or just being part of one of the worst All Blacks teams in recent memory, Barrett looked a far cry from his 2016-17 self.
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Still, he showed flashes of broken play brilliance in New Zealand’s 27-7 Bledisloe Cup II victory, had some nice touches a fortnight later in the 43-5 Bledisloe III win, and his absence was probably a big reason why the All Blacks drew with the Wallabies in their season-opener.
Jordie Barrett: B-
Points scored: 25 (3 tries, 2 conversions, 2 penalties)
The younger Barrett brother was constantly in the spotlight by being picked on the right wing rather than his favoured fullback position, which instead went to Beauden (who would rather have been playing at first-five).
Whether the No. 14 jersey is his rightful home in the All Blacks moving forward is debatable, but – aside from his poor display in his side’s 25-15 defeat to Argentina – he didn’t do anything bad on the wing this year, nor did he do anything worthy of note.
Although, from a try-scoring perspective, the 23-year-old proved his worth as a good finisher, especially with his 50 metre effort in Bledisloe III, but with his impressive physical stature and vast skill set, one wonders whether a crack at the No. 15 jersey beckons next year.
Damian McKenzie: C
Points scored: 0
Stepped up to the plate well in Bledisloe I after he was asked to fill the fullback spot in place of the injured Beauden Barrett at late notice, and was one of the few shining lights during a brief cameo off the bench in the loss to the Pumas.
Aside from that, there wasn’t much to write about for Damian McKenzie this year as the 25-year-old featured predominantly off the bench aside from his call-up on the eve of the 16-all draw with the Wallabies.
One has to question whether the ACL injury that ruled him out of last year’s World Cup has taken its toll, and with Jordan performing brilliantly as he usurped McKenzie in his bench role in Newcastle, the latter needs to rejuvenate and find the form of yesteryear.
George Bridge: C-
Points scored: 0
George Bridge’s stocks as New Zealand’s premier left wing have taken a drastic hit this year.
Started in the Wellington stalemate but was overshadowed by Caleb Clarke’s barnstorming debut cameo after being substituted towards the end of the match, and was then dealt a big blow with a pectoral injury keeping him sidelined until April.
Clarke’s subsequent performances in Bridge’s absence gives the latter a hefty challenge to reclaim the No. 11 jersey he owned during last year’s World Cup.
Sevu Reece: C-
Points scored: 0
Like his fellow Crusaders star and former All Blacks wing partner Bridge, Sevu Reece plummeted down the pecking order this season, going from World Cup starter to just one test as part of a second-string team in 12 months.
It’s not as if Reece had played badly at all for the Crusaders, or that he’d lost his touch that saw him skyrocket from Super Rugby obscurity to All Blacks stardom in 2019, although his less than impressive showing in Brisbane didn’t help his cause.
However, the rise of Clarke and positional switch of Jordie Barrett has appears to have left Reece on the outer, and with Jordan charging through the ranks at tremendous pace, Reece has a lot of work to do to retain his place in the national set-up.
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