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Have the Highlanders lost the plot?

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

New Zealand Rugby faces an upcoming challenge with their first five stocks after the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

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Incumbent starter Richie Mo’unga is heading to Japan on a three-year deal and two-time World Rugby Player of the Year Beauden Barrett is likely to jet off into the sunset after a remarkable All Black career, despite reports of attempts to coax him out of an international retirement.

The All Blacks top two No 10s will be gone next year, presenting a major drop-off in available talent for whoever becomes the next head coach.

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Returning Chiefs first five-eighth Damian McKenzie, who played in the Japan league last year, has 40 Tests behind him and remains the best option to become the next long-term All Black No 10.

At 27 years old, McKenzie has plenty to offer Test rugby post-2023.

But if McKenzie ups and leaves too, the All Blacks will be desperate to find a capable first five. The Chiefs playmaker has only committed for one season and is not locked down past 2023.

Which is why the signing of ex-England international Freddie Burns by the Highlanders is all the more baffling. Nothing against Burns, but he cannot pull on the black jersey and never will.

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When the All Blacks are in desperate need of developing the next batch of 10s, one of their five franchises should not be off signing non-eligible players. Each season of Super Rugby experience is valuable for a prospect’s development arc that will be wasted on Burns.

New Zealand Rugby’s franchises don’t need ‘experience’ from veterans, they need to developing the next crop of potential All Blacks because no one else is going to.

The Highlanders list of first fives include 27-year-old Mitch Hunt, who has 84 Super caps but has not been on the All Black radar as of yet, 33-year-old Marty Banks, who is never going to be, an ex-England international in Burns and 19-year-old Cam Millar.

Unless Hunt is usurped by a younger prospect like Millar there is no reason why he can’t keep the job, but having Banks and Burns on the roster is of absolutely no help to NZR.

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There are only three No 10s on New Zealand Super Rugby squads over the age of 30, two of them are on the Highlanders and the other is Beauden Barrett.

To give the Highlanders credit, they signed former New Zealand age grade rep Ajay Faleafaga in 2021 as an academy prospect but he is not listed in their 2023 squad, despite promising displays for New Zealand U19 last year.

Former Blues pivot Otere Black is currently playing in division two of the Japan league after 62 Super Rugby caps, so is former Chiefs prospect Kaleb Trask at 23-years-old.

Bringing either option home would be of more benefit to the national selectors.

Of the first fives sitting on other Super Rugby rosters, Harry Plummer at the Blues is sitting in the stands most weeks behind Beauden Barrett and Stephen Perofeta.

The 24-year-old needs game time to get anywhere. Luring him away from the Blues may give him an opportunity to do so.

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The Crusaders, Chiefs, Blues and Hurricanes all have made moves to benefit New Zealand Rugby as a whole.

The Crusaders have invested in Fergus Burke’s development since 2018 and this season have taken a chance on bringing 19 year old Taha Kemara down from Waikato to begin his.

The Hurricanes invested in two quality prospects in Aidan Morgan and Ruben Love back in 2020 who are both into their third seasons with the club, whilst bringing back 26 year old and one-time All Black Brett Cameron for another crack.

The Chiefs have brought back Damian McKenzie, kept Bryn Gatland and Josh Ioane, while Northland’s Rivez Reihana is their development prospect. The Blues have Barrett, Perofeta, Plummer and Zarn Sullivan.

If the Highlanders do not fancy Otere Black, Kaleb Trask or Harry Plummer, there are no shortage of options of untapped potential in provincial rugby.

Canterbury’s third choice first five Alex Harford ripped apart Auckland last season in an NPC fixture, showing a prodigious leg and accurate wide passing to set up two Canterbury tries.

That showing alone is enough to warrant interest in the 23-year-old with talent there to be honed and developed further.

Jock McKenzie, a member of the Blues squad last season who made three appearances, is another age grade prospect without a Super team this season.

If you need to go even younger, Byron Smith’s form on the New Zealand under-19 tour to South Africa last year should have all the Super Rugby teams calling to put him in a feeder provincial team.

The question that New Zealand Rugby should be asking is, what the hell are the Highlanders doing? The talent is here, ready for investment and ready for a chance.

The bottom line is any eligible New Zealand player under the age of 25 and over 18 is a better option than Burns, by virtue of having a chance to represent the All Blacks in the future.

And more importantly, the need for New Zealand to do so is as great as ever with the All Blacks about to lose two, possibly three, international quality first fives next year.

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