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Mark Telea made himself undroppable for England Test - and what about 2023?

By Tom Vinicombe
Mark Telea. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Few would have expected at the beginning of the season that Mark Telea would be the man entrusted with the No 14 jersey for the final All Blacks‘ match of the year against England.

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Even coach Ian Foster would not have anticipated that the 25-year-old would accustom himself to Test rugby so well against Scotland that he would be undroppable for the final match of the campaign.

But after spending weeks on the sidelines waiting for an opportunity, Telea announced himself to the world with an electric showing in Edinburgh, scoring two tries, beating away defenders with ease and exhibiting a quick pair of heels to boot.

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Foster effectively had no choice but to give Telea a second run against England and while he wasn’t entirely error-free at Twickenham, he was still a marvel down the flank.

Sevu Reece had a blinder in the No 14 jersey in the opening game of the season while Will Jordan showed off his wide skill set against Australia at Eden Park, but those are perhaps the only two performances of the season on the right wing that have matched Telea’s for impact, and the 2022 debutant has now thrown the cat amongst the pigeons for next season.

An inner ear issue for Jordan paved the way for Telea to join the All Blacks squad, but Foster could have just have easily run Reece or Leicester Fainga’anuku on the wing against Scotland and England. Instead, he opted for the wild card – and it paid off in a big way.

Jordan will be expected to make a return well before Super Rugby Pacific next year and get a full season under his belt before the Rugby Championship kicks off and if he, Reece and Telea are all fit, the All Blacks selectors will have to seriously think about who will serve them most in the No 14 jersey.

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Reece is perhaps the least secure of the trio, having really only featured as a bit-part player since a six or seven-game stretch in 2019 when he was the first choice in the role.

With a bit of a re-jig, however, it’s entirely possible that the other two options could both feature in the top line-up for 2023.

Jordan, after all, is a fullback first and foremost and with Jordie Barrett making the successful (and long overdue) shift to the midfield this year, there might be a spot open in the backfield.

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Beauden Barrett has been filling that position in the latter half of 2022 but hasn’t exactly made it his own. Three workmanlike performances at 15 should not have convinced the selectors that he’s locked down the role and Jordan could be poised to reinvent himself as a Test fullback next season.

Jordan’s move to the back would allow Telea to maintain his position on the right wing and continue his growth.

Should Foster and co decide that Jordan isn’t the man to wear No 15, however, it still doesn’t close the door on both players featuring in the first-choice side.

While Reece, Jordan and Telea have shared duties on the right-hand flank throughout the season, Caleb Clarke has been ever-present on the left wing since making his return to the Test arena against the Springboks in Mbombela. What’s followed is nine further starts in a row for the 23-year-old and while he has the raw attributes to be world-class, he’s not exactly taken the chances presented to him.

For all his power and pace, Clarke drifts in and out of games and makes a considerable number of unforced errors. The All Blacks selectors will be hoping that with another season of Super Rugby under his belt, Clarke could progress into the dominant force many believe he’s capable of emulating. If those developments don’t come, however, a man like Mark Telea wouldn’t look out of place in the No 11 jersey.

Telea might not quite have the robustness of Clarke but he’s still a big, powerful winger, clocking in at over 100kg, and would complement Jordan’s selection on the right exceptionally well.

Heading into the season, the thought of Mark Telea usurping Caleb Clarke or Will Jordan would not have appeared on many folks’ bingo cards and yet two very impressive performances from the late bloomer have certainly upset the apple cart.

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