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The All Blacks' 12 shortage a symptom of flip-flopping New Zealand's age grade stars around positions

By Ben Smith

Trending on RugbyPass

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A season-ending injury to Crusaders midfielder Jack Goodhue early in the year has been a reverberating event for the All Blacks.

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The Goodhue-Lienert-Brown midfield quickly became the first choice combination in 2020 after one instance of the Rieko Ioane at 13 experiment.

The World Cup pair were reinstated after the Wellington draw against Australia, albeit in switched roles, for the Eden Park clash and the selectors didn’t look back.

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The winners and losers of Ian Foster’s All Black squad

A solitary start was handed to Ngani Laumape for the test in Brisbane once the Bledisloe Cup had been secured, but Goodhue had assumed the role as the primary 12.

With Goodhue sidelined and Laumape now headed offshore, the All Blacks’ 12 stocks have never seemed thinner.

The selection of 22-year-old Quinn Tupaea, a former New Zealand schools captain and under-20 representative, may have been an inevitability at some point but his early selection highlights this depth problem.

Foster admitted as much when news came that Lienert-Brown was also sidelined, it forced the All Blacks to bring in the young Chief and Waikato product.

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The other 12 in the squad is David Havili, a standout performer during Super Rugby. A converted fullback who has flourished with the transition back to 12, Havili understandably offers a different style that hasn’t been the All Blacks go-to preference at the position.

He is yet to start a test. Neither has Braydon Ennor, a definite outside centre option. Rieko Ioane has one start to his name in the midfield.

With Goodhue and Lienert-Brown both sidelined, the All Blacks midfield is going to be very green to start this year.

When scratching around for a second option at 12 behind Havili, the All Blacks selectors had the options of Scott Gregory, Dallas McLeod, TJ Faiane, perhaps Harry Plummer or Sio Tomkinson. All next-generation players that are equally as ready as Tupaea.

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Just why is the pool of second fives so stretched?

Looking back through the New Zealand representative teams of the last decade, similar stories emerge of players that began as midfielders ending up as wings or fullbacks.

Particularly at second five-eighth, prospects are flip-flopped around positions as they push through the grades.

It is an interesting model for development, and it is hard to predict whether this will work to build a World Champion team. Whether this is a deliberate ploy to end up with more-rounded versatile professional players is unknown.

In any case, a series of unfortunate circumstances have led to a lack of classic 12s that New Zealand prefers in the pipeline.

Havili himself was selected as a midfielder at under-20 level in 2014, before reaching the Crusaders and displacing their fullback Israel Dagg in the 15 jersey. After a few seasons in the backfield, he moved back to the midfield this year as a necessity after Goodhue’s injury.

At the Highlanders, Patelesio Tomkinson was a bruising 12 as a schoolboy, picked alongside Rieko Ioane to anchor the midfield in the New Zealand schools side in 2014.

By under-20 level, he was pushed to outside centre. By Super Rugby level, he was pushed to the right wing with Tei Walden and Rob Thompson occupying the Highlanders centres at the time.

Just four of his first 21 Super Rugby appearances were starts at second five, just 19 per cent of his development time over his first three seasons.

In 2020, the Highlanders gave him a good run, with eight out of nine games played at 12 but this year he has been back on the wing.

So after five seasons of Super Rugby, is Tomkinson a genuine prospect at 12 for the All Blacks? Perhaps not yet, and to some degree this can be put down to the way he has bounced around the Highlanders backline since arriving to Super Rugby.

This is a blue-chip schoolboy prospect that New Zealand has invested in since a young age, but he is yet to settle on a position and it remains unclear where he should best be utilised.

One man limiting Tomkinson’s time at 12 this season is Scott Gregory, who debuted on the wing last year and came through the New Zealand under-20 team as a midfielder. The Highlanders now see him as a midfield option after trying to use him as a wing. Gregory’s plight is all too familiar.

Tomkinson’s midfield partner at under-20 level in 2016 was none other than Jordie Barrett, who at the time showed incredible potential as a number 12.

His hard line running, physical defence, and towering frame offered an all-round prospect who could smash over the gain line, kick goals and offer a secondary raking boot outside of the first five.

Whilst in the Canterbury system, Barrett was played at provincial level as a 12 next to Jack Goodhue. His form at the under-20 World Championships that year sparked a recruitment race by the Super Rugby teams, which we know was won by the Hurricanes.

Such a prospect at the time, the younger Barrett was always likely to start but the Hurricanes already had Ngani Laumape. In the interests of getting him on the field, Barrett played at fullback and immediately became an instant star.

There were attempts to move Barrett back to the midfield, although mostly at outside centre. The Hurricanes have used Jordie Barrett at second five a grand total of once.

Five years into his career he is now an established fullback, clearly one of the best in the country, but jostling for game time within the All Blacks against Damian McKenzie, Will Jordan and perhaps his older brother Beauden again.

In 2020 we saw Jordie Barrett become a right wing for the All Blacks.

A similar reshuffling was almost made with Tupaea. A ball-carrying, strong, physical schoolboy 12, he was moved to 13 by Waikato and had a fantastic season there in 2018 at provincial level. The under-20 side used him in the same capacity.

When he got to the Chiefs, the All Blacks wanted Lienert-Brown getting minutes at 12 it seemed, so Tupaea was thrust into the 13 role in 2020. The better fit was the inverse, and so it proved in 2021.

Just getting talented players on the field in any position has had unintended consequences in New Zealand, creating logjams in some positions at the All Black level and leaving them completely thin in others.

Last year’s All Black debutant, Peter Umaga-Jensen had a standout season for the Hurricanes at 13. He was mainly a fullback at schools and under-20 level, offering midfield cover, where his twin Thomas played.

In 2020 it looked like he had found a home at centre and All Blacks selectors agreed. This year he has rarely been sighted, as the Hurricanes try to give Billy Proctor the chance to prove the five-year contract they gave him was worthy.

In an attempt to get him and Proctor on the field, Umaga-Jensen may don the 12 jersey at the club next year with Laumape gone. It would be a case of making the parts fit, instead of asking who is the best part?

If Umaga-Jensen is pushed to 12, it really is resetting the clock on his development as an option as a 13 for the All Blacks.

Ngatungane Punivai, a New Zealand schools fullback turned midfielder, is playing his Super Rugby on the right wing. Etene Nanai-Seturo, a top fullback prospect, is on the left wing for the Chiefs.

There is no shortage of talent around, it’s just whether this approach of ‘fitting them in’ does them, and by extension the All Blacks, any good.

Yes, there are overlaps between many positions, and yes, players are probably good enough to go down multiple paths. But it seems there are now many jack-of-all-trades and few masters.

From 2011 leading into the second World Cup title in 2015, the All Blacks had specialists in every position except for the right wing, where they played a second fullback.

Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith in the centres. Kaino, McCaw, Read across the back row. All specialists that played that position week-in, week-out for their Super Rugby side. Through experience they forged chemistry that made the sum of the unit greater than the individual.

The right wing was effectively the only position marginalised, using two fullbacks. First with a Cory Jane and Israel Dagg combination at 14 and 15, then by 2015 it was Nehe Milner-Skudder and Ben Smith. Then Smith and Dagg formed the duo in 2016.

This era is really an unchartered experiment for New Zealand Rugby, with many talented players now becoming utility players on their way through the ranks, away from the approach that delivered two World Cups with specialists.

If the All Blacks need a bruising 12 in the mould of Ma’a Nonu, they aren’t going to want the centre-slash-fullback-slash-wing who isn’t the finished product in either of those roles.

And when they went looking for one this year, the closest they could find was Tupaea, who is that style of 12 but just hasn’t had the time to really become what he will with only 13 Super Rugby caps so far.

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The All Blacks' 12 shortage a symptom of flip-flopping New Zealand's age grade stars around positions

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