While South Africa’s withdrawal late in the piece likely curtailed any plans Ian Foster may have had for selecting a bumper squad for this year’s Rugby Championship, the All Blacks head coach still handed caps to 36 players in his first season in charge.

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That number isn’t any higher than a typical season but it’s still a big figure given that the All Blacks will have only played six matches by the close of the coming weekend.

Further, nine players earned their test debuts in 2020, including Asafo Aumua, Alex Hodgman, Tupou Vaa’i, Cullen Grace, Akira Ioane, Hoskins Sotutu, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Caleb Clarke and Will Jordan.

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Patrick Tuipulotu and Sam Whitelock speak to the media as they prepare to face Argentina in the 2020 Tri Nations.

That compares similarly to other post-World Cup years, with nine players debuting for New Zealand in 2012 and 11 in 2016.

The big difference, however, is that game time has been severely limited for the current season’s crop of debutants.

Clarke has effectively taken over as the first-choice left wing while Sotutu has had some good opportunities – mostly off the bench. 20-year-old Vaa’i has also earned some significant minutes, given the presence of Sam Whitelock, Patrick Tuipulotu and Scott Barrett.

Playing time has been hard to come by for the other six men, however, who’ve mostly a few token minutes off the bench.

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Compare that to 2012, when Brodie Retallick, Luke Romano, Aaron Smith, Julian Savea and Beauden Barrett were heavily used in their debut seasons. Similarly, Ardie Savea, Liam Squire, Anton Lienert-Brown, Scott Barrett and Rieko Ioane clocked up some big minutes.

2020 hasn’t been such easy sailing, however.

The fourth test against Australia was Foster’s first real opportunity to gamble a little bit with selection, given the Bledisloe Cup had already been secured for the year, and he handed debuts to Akira Ioane, Asafo Aumua, Cullen Grace and Will Jordan.

A red card to Ofa Tu’ungafasi prematurely ended Ioane’s start after the All Blacks needed to lose a man in the forwards to accommodate a new prop. Meanwhile, Jordan managed five minutes off the bench before concussion cut his debut short and Grace came on with just two to play and made zero tackles and had zero touches of the ball. Aumua was a bit luckier, managing a whole 10 minutes.

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Had the All Blacks won that match and had one hand on the Tri-Nations trophy, Foster and his fellow selectors would have likely felt comfortable experimenting some more in New Zealand’s final two matches of the year against Argentina. The All Blacks didn’t win, of course, and the top side was rolled out to play Los Pumas in Sydney.

That top side didn’t fare so well either, and Argentina’s historic victory no doubt threw up a conundrum for Foster’s final selection of the year.

 

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Should the All Blacks again pick their ‘best side’, and try to right the wrongs from two weekends’ prior? Or does Foster bank on the shock loss being a product of a once-in-a-blue-moon inspired performance from Argentina, and experiment a little?

We’ll almost certainly see a few changes to the team that was bested in their last outing – potentially even with some fringe players getting another opportunity to showcase their talents.

Even factoring in the side that will try to get revenge on Los Pumas on Saturday, the fact remains that there’s likely been very little movement in the All Blacks pecking order this year – at least based on game day performance.

That should come as a huge relief to the swathe of talented players that weren’t selected to wear the silver fern this season.

There was likely a feeling amongst some players left in New Zealand that if you weren’t selected in the All Blacks’ bumper 38-man squad for the Tri-Nations, you’d slipped quite far down the hierarchy.

That may well be true, but there won’t have been much further ground lost during this year’s test season simply due to the scarce minutes on offer for the young players on the edges of the squad.

Loose forwards such as Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Luke Jacobson and Lachlan Boshier were all touted to earn call-ups this season but were instead left to toil away in the Mitre 10 Cup. While Sotutu has certainly advanced his case for the national side, the same couldn’t be said for Ioane, Grace or Du’Plessis Kirifi.

It’s a similar story elsewhere across the park. Atu Moli and Angus Ta’avao’s injury-plagued seasons pulled the pin on them having much chance of turning out for the All Blacks, but there have been few outstanding performances from New Zealand’s props this year and a good Super Rugby season in 2021 could catapult them back into the selection frame.

Uncapped lock Quinten Strange eventually ceded his spot in the squad to Crusaders teammate Mitch Dunshea following an ankle injury and while Dunshea has been getting to know his fellow All Blacks on the training paddock, Strange is about to play in the provincial final.

In fact, you could argue that the likes of Mikaele-Tu’u, Jacobson and Strange have all been better served by remaining in New Zealand. They’re all still in the early stages of their professional careers and every match will do wonders for their future prospects.

Kirifi and Peter Umaga-Jensen, meanwhile, have spent the better part of the provincial season holding tackle bags for the All Blacks and have missed out on clocking up some solid minutes with Wellington as well as potentially the recently announced Moana Pasifika side.

Of course, any Kiwi rugby player would prefer to be in camp with the All Blacks, even if it wouldn’t have necessarily led to any game time – but the men who did miss out have certainly not fallen behind their peers in the ways that some might have first expected.

This weekend is the final opportunity for this year’s debutants to impress the NZ coaches and with minutes likely to once again be limited, all eyes will be on next year’s blockbuster Super Rugby season.

Injuries and absences across the board led to plenty of youth turning out for their respective sides in this year’s Aotearoa competition and next season will likely be more of the same.

Brodie Retallick, TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett are all on sabbatical in 2021 and there will no doubt be a few players struck down during the pre-season. Meanwhile, a handful of young men have put their hands up during the Mitre 10 Cup – and you never know who might be the next Tupou Vaa’i, someone with zero prospects of playing Super Rugby suddenly thrust into a starting role and eventually emerging as a new All Black.

Next week’s Super Rugby squad announcements will draw plenty of interest but all eyes will be on the All Blacks this weekend – and the men tasked with toppling the high-flying Argentinians. It’s their last chance to make a statement, so expect plenty of fireworks this Saturday.

Listen to the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:

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