OPINION: With the World Cup looming large in 2019, it’s only natural that most of the nation’s focus has been on who the All Blacks will take to the showcase tournament in Japan.
The midfield has been regularly highlighted as a massive area of contention. Between Sonny Bill Williams, Ryan Crotty, Anton Lienert-Brown, Jack Goodhue, Ngani Laumape and Ma’a Nonu, there’s a genuine lock jam of talent with all six players putting their hands up for selection.
Post-2019, however, the picture is a lot murkier.
Crotty has already confirmed he is heading overseas and Williams is coming to the end of his contract with the NZRU. Nonu appeals as an experienced operator for the World Cup but it’s unlikely he would be selected next year ahead of young players with high ceilings.
26-year-old Matt Proctor, who earned his first All Blacks cap last year, is also destined for foreign shores.
That only leaves Lienert-Brown, Goodhue and Laumape as experienced midfielders for 2020 and beyond. Whoever earns the coveted All Blacks coaching role will be in need of at least one or two more players to bring into the midfield. No doubt, aspiring coaches will be scouring the country now and keeping an eye on who might be worthy of a spot in the All Blacks.
Outside of the above seven, there have been a number of young centres going about their business in Super Rugby and, courtesy of the World Cup focus, somewhat flying under the radar.
The Blues have both Nonu and Williams on their books and, before the season commenced, many wondered if we would see the two pair up for the Auckland-based team. Instead, the two All Blacks have shared time at second-five, with TJ Faiane starting every match in the 13 jersey.
Faiane was earmarked for great things from the early stages of his career when he represented New Zealand at both the secondary school and Under 20s levels. Faiane was used at 12 in his second year with the U20 team and started in the final against England. Throughout the competition he was paired with both Jack Goodhue and Anton Lienert-Brown.
Were it not for a horrific run of injuries, it’s quite possible that Faiane would have already been competing with that pair for higher honours. He made his debut for Auckland in 2014 but then barely made an appearance on the rugby field for the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
It wasn’t until the 2017 year that Faiane was finally able to shrug off injuries and make his debut for the Blues. 2018 was the year that Faiane finally started delivering on his potential, captaining Auckland to a Mitre 10 Cup Premiership title.
He’s now one of the most reliable players taking the field on the weekly for the Blues and it’s no surprise that he’s been the cornerstone of the midfield.
Nonu and Williams, for all their experience and game-breaking abilities, have a tendency to push passes and try make miracle plays from time to time. Sometimes this approach yields dividends, but sometimes you simply need a steady hand in the midfield to hold onto the ball. Possession is key, particularly when you’re in the opposition half.
Faiane is conceding turnovers less than once every two games and is making, on average, the fewest handling errors of any of the regular midfielders in the competition with only three occurring in his 11 matches to date. He’s been one of the most reliable players in not just the New Zealand conference but in the whole of Super Rugby in terms of avoiding giving the ball away to the opposition.
When the Blues have needed a big play, they’ve often used the likes of Rieko Ioane, Nonu or Williams, but Faiane is the go-to man when the Blues just want to settle things down a bit. For a team that probably still too often chances their arm, Faiane is the glue that’s trying to hold everything together.
Faiane is finally starting to emerge as the player that he always promised to be and if he can maintain his form heading into next year, he could find himself resuming his old partnerships with his Under 20 teammates.
Down State Highway 1, Tumua Manu at the Chiefs has followed a completely different pathway. Manu represented Samoa in various age-grade sides before coming to New Zealand in 2015 as a 22-year-old. He earned a spot in the Auckland provincial side in 2017 and was called up to the Blues last year to cover for injuries. Manu was used exclusively on the wing for the Blues but partnered Faiane in the midfield in Auckland’s run to the Premiership in the latter half of last year.
The Blues weren’t able to find room for Manu in their 2019 squad which has seen him relocate to Hamilton for a stint with the Chiefs. Questions were rightly raised over why the Chiefs would sign a player from outside the region when local talent Quinn Tupaea were performing so ably for Waikato, but Manu has proven to be one of the best signings the Chiefs made.
Manu has played the most matches of any Chiefs back in 2019 and, like Faiane, has made fewer handling errors than most players in the competition. With eight line-break assists to his name, he’s also been productive on attack, creating opportunities for the likes of Lienert-Brown, Alex Nankivell and Damian McKenzie.
Manu, in his first full season of Super Rugby, is making all the right plays. He’s certainly too green for international rugby now but with more game time could find himself thrust into the spotlight come 2020.
The biggest roadblock for Manu in the future will be ensuring that he gets reasonable game-time. With Lienert-Brown and Nankivell locked up at the Chiefs and young guns Bailyn Sullivan and Tupaea all likely to be in the mix, Manu may find a homecoming to Auckland is the best option on the cards. Williams will likely be off the Blues’ books and there are rumblings that Nonu could also be gone, so a partnership with his Auckland teammate Faiane could be the way forward for Manu.
It’s impossible to talk about New Zealand’s upcoming midfielders without re-affirming how strong Quinn Tupaea looked for Waikato in their Championship run last season. Tupaea was a key cog in the team in his debut season – likely one of the first names on the team sheet each week. At just 19 years of age, Tupaea has plenty of time to prove his worth at Super Rugby level and will likely be elevated to the Chiefs squad for 2020. At present, he’s biding his time with the New Zealand Under 20 squad who are shortly due to travel to Argentina for the 2019 World Cup.
One player who has certainly not flown under the radar is Crusaders utility back Braydon Ennor. Ennor, like Faine, was schooled at St. Kentigern College in Auckland – a school that has produced players such as Joe Rokocoko, Jerome Kaino and Suliasi Vunivalu (who was top try scorer in the NRL in 2016).
After spending time in the Blues age-grade setup, Ennor relocated to Canterbury for university and was quickly picked up by the Crusaders Academy. He was selected in the 2017 New Zealand Under 20 side which won the World Cup and was subsequently named in the Canterbury Mitre 10 Cup team. In his debut season with the team, Ennor had six tries to his name by the end of round 2, showing off his prodigious finishing talent on the wing.
Ennor played a handy role in the Crusaders’ 2018 title run, primarily used off the bench, but on the back of a starring role in the midfield for Canterbury in their 2018 provincial season and some great early-season form, he looks to have all but cemented a spot in the Crusaders starting side moving forward.
The Auckland-born speedster has again been used mainly on the wing for the Crusaders side due to the presence of Crotty and Goodhue but is firmly entrenched as the third-choice midfielder – starting matches when either All Black is required to sit out a match. For the Crusaders’ game with the Sharks, Goodhue and Ennor were paired together in what could be the future midfield for the team, with Ennor lining up at centre. Unfortunately, the experiment lasted only 32 minutes with a shuffle to the backline required after an injury to Will Jordan.
Still, with Crotty heading to Japan after the World Cup, it would be a huge surprise for Braydon Ennor and Jack Goodhue to not resume their partnership in 2020. Ennor possesses all the skills necessary to play in the midfield and spent much of his early career there, but he also has genuine pace and could be a great utility option for the All Blacks – not dissimilar to how Richard Kahui was once used.
For the 2019 season, there’s no question that the All Blacks are well covered in the midfield. They have six genuine world class options that they could roll out, depending on the need. 2020 will require a rebuild, however, and there are plenty of young players sticking their hands up for selection.
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