As we draw closer to the start of a brand new Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign, much of the interest in the competition will inevitably turn to who from across the five New Zealand franchises could become All Blacks in 2021.
Given the seemingly never-ending conveyer belt of talent that New Zealand constantly churns out, it’s unsurprising that there is usually at least one Super Rugby rookie handed a test debut just months after having never played as a full professional.
Last year, Tupou Vaa’i and Cullen Grace both fit that bill, as did Sevu Reece in 2019.
The year before that, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Shannon Frizell and Brett Cameron were all picked for the All Blacks on the back of one Super Rugby season, and the same thing happened in 2017 for Jordie Barrett, Jack Goodhue and Dillon Hunt.
So, don’t be shocked to see one of this year’s Super Rugby newbies thrust into Ian Foster’s squad at some stage over the course of the next 12 months – but who exactly could make that step up this time round?
Here are a few names that might come into the selection conversation in the coming weeks and months.
Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens (Blues)
It’s hardly as if the All Blacks are lacking any kind of depth in the outside backs, but the talents of young speedster Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens may propel him into national contention.
A two-time New Zealand Schools representative and former Parramatta Eels prospect, the 19-year-old was a star for Taranaki in the Mitre 10 Cup last year, bagging 10 tries in as many outings to establish himself as one of the most lethal wings in the league.
Having signed a two-year deal with the All Blacks Sevens at the end of 2019, ambitions to play in the Tokyo Olympics in July may delay any potential All Blacks call-up.
That could prove to be a favourable option considering how competitive it will be for game time among the Blues’ outside backs this year, but Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens would have to be one of the frontrunners to partner Caleb Clarke on the wings.
If that’s the case, the likes of AJ Lam, Jone Macilai-Tori, Emoni Narawa and Mark Telea can expect a tough challenge to snatch a starting spot back off him, as the teenager only needs an inch before he’ll take a mile.
With Sevu Reece’s place in the All Blacks looking vulnerable following an underwhelming campaign that saw him overtaken by Will Jordan in the pecking order, and George Bridge working his way back from injury, keep your eyes peeled for Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens this season.
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Zarn Sullivan (Blues)
Again, the All Blacks aren’t exactly short on outside backs – especially not at fullback with Beauden and Jordie Barrett, Will Jordan and Damian McKenzie all in their ranks.
Even then, it’s worthwhile taking note of how Blues rookie Zarn Sullivan fares in the No. 15 jersey in 2021 as he prepares to take over from Beauden while the latter enjoys his Japanese sabbatical with Suntory Sungoliath.
After starring for Auckland en route to their runners-up finish in the Mitre 10 Cup, the 20-year-old looks primed to play a key role for Leon MacDonald’s side in his debut Super Rugby season.
With Barrett leaving a gaping hole in the Blues’ backline, MacDonald has already hinted that Sullivan is in line to fill that void this year as he looks to realise his immense potential.
Standing at 1.93m and 101kg, the youngster is already equipped with a hefty physical frame, making him a compelling option to form a powerful back three with Clarke and Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens.
Xavier Roe (Chiefs)
The search for the next young All Blacks halfback is well underway, with incumbents Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara and Brad Weber all either on the wrong side of 30-years-old or coming close to it.
More alarmingly is that Smith, by far the best scrumhalf in the country, is now at the age of 32 and coming off contract at the end of this year.
It took a hefty fight on behalf of NZR and the Highlanders to keep him in New Zealand on a two-year contract extension in 2019, with the 97-test star admitting at the time there was strong interest from an unnamed Japanese club.
Having ticked off pretty much everything there is to achieve as a New Zealand rugby player, Smith could well opt to cash in on his talents while still in his prime and take up a lucrative overseas contract when similar levels of interest are shown from Europe and Japan this year.
Even if he does decide to stay put until the 2023 World Cup, there will be a significant emphasis on finding his long-term replacement, a role neither Perenara nor Weber can fill.
Much has understandably been made of the potential shown by Folau Fakatava, Smith’s imminent successor at the Highlanders who is capable of doing the same at test level.
However, in the form of new Chiefs halfback Xavier Roe, Fakatava may have a challenger in his quest for the New Zealand No. 9 jersey after the 22-year-old lit up the Mitre 10 Cup for Waikato last year.
A former New Zealand U20 representative, Roe caught many an eye through his performances for the Mooloos, and looms as a strong contender for game time behind Weber at the Chiefs.
Should he replicate the form he showed for Waikato that made him a Super Rugby player, we could be treated to an exciting battle for All Blacks selection between him and Fakatava.
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Tamaiti Williams (Crusaders)
More of an unheralded rookie compared to those mentioned above, but there is reason to get excited about tighthead prop Tamaiti Williams if you’re a Crusaders fan.
The 21-year-old Australian-born front-rower is a product of the Canterbury academy after coming through the ranks at Auckland’s prodigious St Kentigern College, and rose to prominence in 2020 with a string of impressive showings for the red-and-blacks.
Blessed with a hulking 1.93m and 137kg frame, Williams is renowned for his ball-carrying ability and was rewarded for his efforts in his debut Mitre 10 Cup campaign with a maiden Maori All Blacks call-up for last month’s clash against Moana Pasifika.
“Tamaiti is growing his craft as a tighthead prop, and has a great point of difference,” Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson said as he unveiled his 2021 squad at the end of last year.
“He’s a big man, with the ability to carry with the best of them, and he’ll be better for his experience in the Maori All Blacks camp.”
Joining an esteemed front-row contingent that includes tightheads Michael Alaalatoa, Oli Jager and fellow newcomer Fletcher Newell, Williams’ first challenge will be to crack the Crusaders’ match day squad on a regular basis.
Do that, and his sizeable talents might be too hard for Ian Foster to ignore as he continues his quest to find a legitimate replacement for Owen Franks in the All Blacks camp.
Isaiah Punivai (Crusaders)
With Braydon Ennor ruled out for almost the entirety of the forthcoming Super Rugby season, an unexpected opening has presented itself to new Crusaders starlet Isaiah Punivai.
Signed to the reigning champions after a stellar season for Canterbury, the 20-year-old midfielder stands as a top candidate to partner Jack Goodhue in the Crusaders midfield.
Set to compete with Dallas McLeod for either the No. 12 or No. 13 jersey, there is plenty to like about Punivai’s game, of which Robertson outlined upon the announcement of his squad for the year.
“Isaiah is a quality young player, who brings immense physicality in the midfield and has the skill set to play multiple positions,” he said.
“Last year’s [Canterbury] Under 19 captain, we think he’s poised to make an important contribution on and off the field in 2021.”
Those comments suggest Punivai, who can also play in the outside backs, may play an extensive role for the franchise in Ennor’s absence.
Prolonged exposure in a Crusaders side has proven time and time again to be hugely beneficial for the development of a plethora of players over many years, and with Foster’s midfield unconvincing throughout last year, that might prove true for Punivai as well.
Despite the persistence of Anton Lienert-Brown and Goodhue as midfield partners, the pair possess skill sets very similar to each other, which has been counter-productive every now and again.
Ngani Laumape and Rieko Ioane, meanwhile, haven’t taken their chances at test level despite their obvious talents, and Peter Umaga-Jensen is still a raw prospect in the international arena.
All of that makes for a group of midfielders whose places in the All Blacks aren’t as stable as they could be, leaving Punivai with opportunity to wedge his way into the selection mix if he can live up to his potential in Super Rugby.
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