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Results aside, All Blacks' depth off the charts

By Tom Vinicombe

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Ian Foster suggested late in the season that the All Blacks had two goals for 2021: win test matches and build depth.

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Whether the former was achieved is up for debate; although the All Blacks did manage to win an impressive 12 of their 15 fixtures throughout the seasons, they dropped three of their four toughest clashes, against South Africa, Ireland and France.

With regards to the latter, however, it’s fair to suggest that Foster and his coaching group have finished the season with some excellent depth in every position across the board and created a few headaches for themselves next year when they need to select a much trimmer squad than the 40-man group (give or take) they worked with throughout much of 2021.

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The panel of Ross Karl, Bryn Hall and James Parsons run their eyes over all the developments from the past week of rugby.
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The panel of Ross Karl, Bryn Hall and James Parsons run their eyes over all the developments from the past week of rugby.

Outside of the contingent that travelled to Australia or Europe, the All Blacks also left some promising athletes at home – men who could conceivably push for a spot in the squad prior to the World Cup in 2023.

As such, how does the All Blacks’ depth look across the board?

Loosehead props

Although it would be a difficult job arguing that any of New Zealand’s current loosehead props are world class, the likes of Joe Moody and Karl Tu’inukuafe can hold their own at the scrum with the best of the best. Moody’s back-up at the Crusaders, George Bower, also earned his first caps this year after travelling with the squad last season.

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It’s 23-year-old Ethan de Groot who looms as the man that could make the biggest strides in the next two seasons, however, after already destroying a number of more experienced options at Super Rugby level earlier in the season. De Groot managed just one start and three further appearances off the bench for the All Blacks this season but don’t be surprised if first-choice Moody is suddenly having to fight for his spot next season.

Throw in Ofa Tuungafasi, who can cover both sides of the scrum, Aidan Ross of the Chiefs, who briefly joined the squad this year as injury cover, and last year’s debutant Alex Hodgman, and the All Blacks shouldn’t lack for options next season. Add young guns Tamaiti Williams and Ollie Norris into the mix, and the future is bright in the No 1 jersey.

Hookers

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While Codie Taylor wasn’t necessarily at his best throughout the season – potentially due to the length of rugby the calendar – the emergence of Samisoni Taukei’aho means the coaches will be confident the All Blacks will travel to France with a strong one-two punch in the hooker position.

Dane Coles spent much of the season on ice but looked solid upon his return for the final internationals of the year while Asafo Aumua is still one for the future, even if he slipped behind Taukei’aho in the standings.

Meanwhile, Ash Dixon’s departure to Japan means NZ couldn’t call upon a seriously experienced hooker outside the group that was used this season, while former All Blacks Nathan Harris has called time on his career. That leaves Liam Coltman as the next cab off the ranks – who boasts a number of caps himself already.

Tighthead props

For all the depth the All Blacks have on the loosehead side of the scrum, there must be some concerns about the back-ups at tighthead prop.

Nepo Laulala dominated the No 3 jersey this season why Tyrel Lomax justified his selection with some strong performances later in the year. 2019 World Cup props Angus Ta’avao and Ofa Tuungafasi spent more time on the sidelines than they did on the playing field but are still very much contenders for the next tournament.

Other than that trio, the perpetually injured Atunaisa Moli is the next cab off the ranks but behind him, the cupboards are relatively bare. If you’re a young tighthead playing Super Rugby next season, there’s a very real chance that a breakout season could catapult you straight into the frame for national selection – otherwise, the All Blacks might have to recall Owen Franks, if everything turns pear shaped over the coming seasons.

Locks

The second row is another area of great depth for New Zealand – even if the top locks in the country weren’t necessarily up to their usual standards throughout the season.

Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Scott Barrett and Patrick Tuipulotu will all likely feature at the next World Cup and will have close to 400 caps between them when the tournament rolls around.

Then there’s Tupou Vaa’i and Josh Lord, who are promising up-and-comers, as well as the likes of Mitch Dunshea and Quinten Strange, who have been involved with the All Blacks before. Factor in other potential future call-ups like Sam Darry and Pari Pari Parkinson, and the All Blacks selectors will be very happy with their options in the second row.

Loose forwards

With eight loose forwards travelling to Europe, there’ll definitely be some culling in that department next season – but there are also half a dozen players lining up to step up if given the opportunity.

On the blindside flank, Akira Ioane, Ethan Blackadder, Luke Jacobson and Shannon Frizell are all options, with the likes of Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Dalton Papalii and Blackadder were utilised at No 7 this year. Savea, Jacobson and Hoskins Sotutu were all employed at the back of the scrum but Ioane, Blackadder and Cane could all slot in at number 8 if called upon too.

Then, consider all the men who wouldn’t necessarily look out of place in a black jersey, if called upon: Tom Robinson, Pita Gus Sowakula, Du’Plessis Kirifi, Devan Flanders, Cullen Grace, Tom Christie, Billy Harmon, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u have all shown plenty of promise at Super Rugby level and while many of them won’t ever get the opportunity to wear the black jersey, you would expect them to do their nation proud.

Halfbacks

Although an underdone Aaron Smith was well and truly outplayed by Antoine Dupont in their recent head-to-head, Smith is still arguably the best halfback in world rugby and is as important as ever to the All Blacks’ fortunes.

Behind Smith, however, the picture is a little hazy. TJ Perenara is incredibly talented, but perhaps not in the key skills needed to be a world-class halfback, while Brad Weber took the opportunities handed to him this year and Finlay Christie made a good fist of his first season involved.

Folau Fakatava is the brightest up-and-comer in New Zealand – but may not be eligible to play for the All Blacks until 2023, which may not give the 21-year-old enough time to stamp his mark prior to the World Cup.

Otherwise, Mitch Drummond and Bryn Hall continue to perform for the Crusaders and have spent time in camp with the All Blacks, as has their new teammate Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi. In terms of young men coming through the ranks, the trio of Xavier Roe, Cortez Ratima and Taufa Funaki could all be special players in the future, while the return of Jamie Booth for the Hurricanes should attract some attention, given his strong form in 2020.

First fives

The departure of Otere Black to Japan means there’s not quite as much experienced depth at No 10 in NZ as the All Blacks selectors would probably like, but providing Beauden Barrett, Richie Mo’unga and Damian McKenzie can stay out of harm’s way, that shouldn’t cause too many problems over the next two years.

Following 2023, however, it’s entirely possible that one or two of that trio leaves New Zealand’s shores, and there aren’t yet any obvious candidates to step in and fill their shoes.

Black and Brett Cameron – arguably the form pivots in the NPC – have both transferred to Japan, leaving only Mitch Hunt and Josh Ioane as relatively experienced options, while the young group coming through, the likes of Ruben Love, Fergus Burke and Rivez Reihana, are yet to really crack Super Rugby. Perhaps the best long-term option is Zarn Sullivan, who’s primarily featured at fullback for the Blues.

It’s a bit of a puzzle, to be sure.

Midfield

Perhaps the greatest depth, even if a lot of it is still unproven, is the midfield. Yes, Ngani Laumape has left New Zealand’s shores, but the All Blacks still called upon five different centres this year: Anton Lienert-Brown, David Havili, Rieko Ioane, Quinn Tupaea and Braydon Ennor.

Jack Goodhue, meanwhile, was out through injury, while some considered Leicester Fainga’anuku seriously unlucky to miss out on selection. That leaves the next tier of players, such as Alex Nankivell and less experienced options including Peter and Thomas Umaga-Jensen, who are all supremely talented as well.

There’s also the arrival of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck at the Blues for fans to get excited about.

The toughest challenge for Foster and his selectors is not finding top-quality centres, it’s deciding who to partner up in the midfield for the All Blacks.

Wings

As always, NZ are well stocked out wide. Between Ioane, Ennor, Will Jordan, George Bridge, Sevu Reece and Caleb Clarke, there are ample capped options to keep the All Blacks’ attack threatening, while others such as Fainga’anuku, Salesi Rayasi, Kini Naholo and Jona Nareki could all earn black jerseys in the years to come.

Fullback

While Beauden Barrett, Jordie Barrett and McKenzie are all excellent options at fullback, there’s are great back-ups across the country – including Havili and Jordan, who are both yet to really get a shot in the No 15 jersey.

Sullivan is the most promising player coming through the ranks – but will likely miss out on the 2023 World Cup, given New Zealand’s depth – while others such as Stephen Perofeta and Conor Garden-Bachop have started to come into their own at Super Rugby level.

All Blacks depth chart:

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