Mo'unga, McKenzie, then who? The increasingly desperate search to find the next great All Black first-five
New Zealand’s greatest ever crop of first-fives surfaced during the 2010s as each Super Rugby franchise, at any given time, laid claim to having the country’s best No. 10 on their team.
The Chiefs, having made a move to lure Aaron Cruden away from the Hurricanes after 2011, immediately struck gold with two Super Rugby titles in the early part of the decade as Cruden proved to be the anointed heir to Dan Carter with fine performances under Dave Rennie.
Not to be outdone, Beauden Barrett led the Hurricanes to back-to-back finals, losing the first and winning the second before elevating past Cruden in the All Blacks ranks at the dawn of the last World Cup cycle.
The team the Hurricanes lost the first final to, the Highlanders, had Lima Sopoaga at the helm. He became undeniable any longer and forced himself into the All Blacks frame after helping the Dunedin side secure a maiden title in 2015.
That left the Blues as the only Kiwi franchise that couldn’t get their hands on a once-in-a-generation first-five talent throughout the 2010s.
In the Crusaders’ case, the Christchurch franchise had two generational talents, moving quickly from the end of Carter’s career into the Mo’unga era after the 2015 World Cup.
Enjoying the back half of Carter’s career and seeing this crop flourish throughout the decade was a luxury few nations boasted, but this generation is now in its twilight years and natural market forces played a hand in pushing talents like Cruden and Sopoaga overseas.
Beauden Barrett is now a quasi-fullback stuck in first-five purgatory in the midst of a two-year part-time sabbatical.
Since that golden crop, the pipeline has become less fruitful in a position the country is renowned for having creative, natural playmakers with instinctive vision.
You could argue that just two generational talents have been uncovered since – Damian McKenzie and Richie Mo’unga from the 2014 U20 team. At 25 and 26-years-old, respectively, their peak years are arriving if they aren’t here already.
Both have X-factor. Both have all-round ability in the passing game, running game and kicking game that makes them a triple threat attacking option.
Both have proven it, with multiple seasons ripping apart opposition almost single-handedly at Super Rugby level.
However, McKenzie’s scheduled transition to first-five was put on hold last year before his devastating ACL injury and hasn’t been revisited on his return.
He seems to be destined to remain a fullback option for the foreseeable future, leaving Richie Mo’unga as the only generational talent at No. 10 left in the country to come through the system since 2011.
In between, other first-fives to come through the U20 programme have flamed out early or largely finished their time in New Zealand, adding to a growing depth problem in what was recently a position of unrivalled strength.
Few will know of Scott Eade (’12), Jade Te Rure (’13) or TJ Va’a (’16), while Ihaia West (’12) moved to France and Tiaan Falcon (’17) has already moved to Japan at age 23 with just four Super Rugby appearances.
Simon Hickey (’13) has returned from Edinburgh to the Hurricanes for another crack after a first run at the Blues that didn’t get going.
None have made the leap to international level, nor dominated Super Rugby in all facets of the game to push themselves into the conversation of top tier pivots.
Many of these players are steady hands, with tidy games but lack the risk-taking bravado combined with the special ability to just make things happen like Carter, Barrett, Cruden, Sopoaga or Mo’unga.
Black’s fine year in 2020 was really all about game management and distribution, and he has some way to go to become an all-round threat capable of becoming world-class.
Of the bunch, Perofeta has shown flashes of being the complete attacking threat and is the No. 10 with the purest creative soul currently on a Super Rugby roster.
He possesses the rare ability to draw contact and delicately deliver the ball into gaps, using shifty footwork to manoeuvre his pass where it needs to be and is always a chance to slip through himself.
But, while Perofeta can create for himself or others, he hasn’t shown the polish in other areas like game management or pinpoint precision in the kicking game.
In a game increasingly moving towards ‘structure’ and a desire for mistake-free game management, Perofeta has become marginalised in favour of the likes of Black, Plummer and Barrett at the Blues, spending time at fullback in 2020 before injury struck.
This approach might be fine at Super Rugby level, but ‘game managers’ aren’t exactly the All Blacks modus operandi – the No. 10 jersey has been the central figure and star of the backline who is a threat as much as anyone else.
Andrew Mehrtens, Carlos Spencer, Carter and Barrett all could cut through a defence or open up space for those outside. New Zealand doesn’t do one-dimensional ‘distributors’, but is increasingly favouring them at the levels below.
Then there are the unheralded pros who took a different path.
The only capped first-five in New Zealand under 25 years of age is Brett Cameron, an outsider at the Crusaders who only sees limited time behind Mo’unga and was a question mark test cap in the first place.
At 25, Josh Ioane possesses the traits of a golden No. 10 and was capped last year, but wasn’t used in the All Blacks set-up this year. He languished in Mitre 10 with indifferent form even after a couple of promising Super Rugby Aotearoa showings.
Fletcher Smith, who has bounced around Super Rugby squads for a few seasons, was left out of the Hurricanes roster for next year in favour of bringing back Hickey.
New Chiefs signing Bryn Gatland is onto his third Super Rugby team, and talented Hawke’s Bay pivot Lincoln McClutchie continues to be snubbed by New Zealand teams unprepared to give him a shot at Super Rugby level and spent time behind utlity Caleb Makene during this provincial season..
New Zealand is falling into a lull in terms of producing international quality No. 10s who are regarded as the world’s best with only Mo’unga and McKenzie possessing the tools to earn that title over the next decade.
They are instead slowly moving towards lower risk options without unrestrained playmaking vision and the balls to roll the dice and then actually pull it off.
By comparison, France has four flyhalf prospects under the age of 25 who are natural playmakers who have been capped already.
Anthony Belleau is just 24 and is seemingly down the peck order despite holding promise.
New Zealand has, at this point, Mo’unga, McKenzie and ex-first five Barrett, who will be 32-years-old in 2023 as the future pivots for the All Blacks and two are considered 15s now.
If Barrett is still a fullback by then, he has about a 10 percent chance of still being in the team.
Ben Smith couldn’t keep his spot at 33 last year and it was the same for Mils Muliaina in 2011 at 31, and they are two of the greatest fullbacks to ever wear the black jersey. History is simply against Barrett as a No. 15 being around at the next World Cup.
New Zealand needs another golden U20 crop of pivots like the 2011 vintage, and perhaps that is on the way.
This year, four first-fives who were signed to Mitre 10 Cup sides and were invited to the U20 development camp (although they did not get to play): Aidan Morgan, Zarn Sullivan, Stewart Cruden and second-year returnee Reihana.
Given their age, these are long shots that need to keep progressing, but they have some of the traits needed, and, most of all, time ahead of them.
Morgan has footwork, fast hands, elusiveness, a repertoire of passes and the willingness to get hit needed of a great attacking No. 10.
Cruden, the younger brother of ex-Chiefs star Aaron, is maybe the best ball-player of the bunch, while Reihana and Sullivan are tall, rangy No. 10s with strong passing and long kicking games.
The Hurricanes, plodding along in the post-Barrett years, need to give their young pivots Morgan and Cruden a shot sooner or later.
Experienced hands they have signed in recent years like Hickey and James Marshall aren’t going to be the next great All Blacks No. 10, as much as they can add value as a member of team.
McClutchie, Cruden or Morgan could be, and New Zealand is being done a disservice by them not being signed them to a Super Rugby squad, at least as a third option.
Every New Zealand franchise that has won a Super Rugby title has one thing in common – they had a game-changing 10 running the show.
For the All Blacks’ sake, the Super Rugby franchises need to uncover the next one to bolster the prospects in 2023 and beyond.
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