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The All Blacks playing for their careers in this year's Super Rugby Pacific

By Hamish Bidwell
(Photo By David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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Are a few All Blacks playing for their careers in 2022? The honest answer is plenty should be, but few actually are.

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By my count, there are about 45 current All Blacks. That’s to say guys who suited up in 2021 or would’ve done had they been fit.

I lump them into three groups: the definites, the guys who’ll get picked again but arguably shouldn’t and the final group of blokes who are neither here nor there.

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The complicating factor is the team itself. We’ve seen no evidence of a definite gameplan and no real semblance of a starting XV.

If the men coaching and selecting the side have an actual plan, then they’re doing a good job of keeping people guessing.

That’s not entirely uncommon at this stage of the Rugby World Cup cycle, but it would be a brave management group who waited until the knockout rounds of that tournament to finally show their hand.

Let’s start with the definites, of which I don’t have many. Bear in mind, these are my definites and won’t tally with yours, your mates or the blokes who actually pick the team.

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Jordie Barrett, Will Jordan, Rieko Ioane, Anton Lienert-Brown, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Ardie Savea, Scott Barrett, Tupou Vaa’i and Dane Coles are my dudes that have to be there in 2023.

I don’t like Ioane as a centre and still have doubts about which spot in the loose trio Savea should take, but they’re a must in New Zealand’s best side.

There’s no props there, just one midfield back and no-one to play No.6. Or a No.7, depending on where Savea ends up.

Fingers crossed that one or two emerge between now and then.

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The next bit’s hard, because some of these have been outstanding All Blacks, but there are a group of players who really need to show us something this year. That starts with Super Rugby Pacific, which not every elite player will be too enthused about.

I want Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick to still be All Blacks come 2023, but they’ll need to justify it. It would be nice if Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, Richie Mo’unga, Ofa Tuungafasi and Sam Cane could join them but, in all fairness, they’ll need to be quite a lot better.

Beyond them, TJ Perenara, David Havili and George Bridge could have few complaints if a quiet franchise season sees them fall from All Blacks contention.

But add those 10 names to the guys on the definites list and that’s still only 20 players.

It’s no so long ago that we sympathised with selectors because of all the good players they had to leave out. Sadly, we’re now in an era where merely adequate footballers have become regulars in the squad.

Would some guys perform better under a different coaching group? I suspect so, but it’s a moot point.

We’ve got what we’ve got and there is a large group of players who need to find a way to play to their potential in an All Blacks jumper. We all believe the talent exists, but the performances in 2020 and 2021 haven’t backed that belief up often enough.

Frankly, it feels like the All Blacks are a team in transition, in which some all-time greats are showing their age and the next generation aren’t quite good enough.

If I have a wish for Super Rugby Pacific, it’s that guys grind it out game after game. I don’t want to see a good 40 minutes here or a barnstorming fortnight there. I want to see guys demand selection through consistency of performance.

If Whitelock and Retallick want to be among the first names on the teamsheet, then they have to earn it. If Cane is to finally establish himself as captain, then he’ll have to prove his durability. If Taylor wants to hold off the challenge of Samisoni Taukei’aho, then that starts with the Crusaders. If Moody still bristles at the suggestion the All Blacks pack got done by Ireland in Dublin, then he needs to show it rather than say it.

The challenge for all the would-be’s and might-be’s is to match the effort and excellence of Ardie Savea, to find the accuracy that someone like Jordie Barrett has.

Lots of positions remain wide open here and it’s time for a lot of players to actually justify their All Blacks status.

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