We have arrived at the penultimate article in our “Future of Rugby” series, with our attentions now turning to New Zealand and their U23 options, as the All Blacks look to bounce back from a disappointing Rugby World Cup and re-establish themselves as the premier rugby nation in the world.
As ever, New Zealand does not lack for talent thanks to the fervency of the sport in the country, not to mention the high quality of the nation’s schoolboy and domestic competitions, both of which feed productively into their very successful Super Rugby franchises. There are growing financial challenges and the rise in popularity of competing sports shouldn’t be discounted, but the All Blacks still have a bevvy of gifted young players to choose from.
As with our recent examination of England and all other top eight ranked nations, only players aged 23 or younger on the May 1st 2020 were considered eligible for this selection.
15. Will Jordan, Crusaders
There are plenty of combinations of players in this back three and at fly-half, though we have opted for the ultra-talented Jordan. The incisive and instinctive full-back should cement the Crusaders’ 15 jersey if he can stay injury-free, and then throw his name into the mix alongside the likes of Damian McKenzie and Beauden Barrett. This just goes to show the potential riches at Ian Foster’s disposal.
14. Sevu Reece, Crusaders
Reece has enjoyed an extremely productive 12 or so months, which culminated in him locking down one of the wing spots for the All Blacks at the recent Rugby World Cup. Competition abounds in the forms of Etene Nanai-Seturo, Leicester Fainga’anuku and Jona Nareki to name but a few, but Reece doesn’t look like he is going anywhere for the time being.
13. Braydon Ennor, Crusaders
As with many of the young guns in the Crusaders back line, Ennor coped well with the transition from age-grade to senior rugby and swiftly played an important role in delivering back-to-back titles for the South Island franchise. His partnerships with Jack Goodhue, Richie Mo’unga and Jordan could soon be at the forefront of the new-look All Blacks, although Quinn Tupaea and Billy Proctor are hovering, too.
12. Tanielu Tele’a, Blues
A powerful ball-carrier and running centre at 12, Tele’a will hope to eventually mirror the role that Ma’a Nonu provided the All Blacks with for so long. The efficient pressure valve that he provides could soon become a valuable commodity for Blues fly-half Barrett, as the pair attempt to rebuild what was once New Zealand’s showpiece franchise. Dallas McLeod will have his eye on this spot, too.
11. Rieko Ioane, Blues
An honourable mention for Ioane’s Blues teammate Caleb Clarke, who has a bright future waiting for him, though this spot was never going to go anyone else. Ioane took to international rugby exceptionally well as a teenager and already has 24 tries in just 29 games. If he can stay fit and keep performing consistently, Ioane could end up breaking a number of All Blacks records.
10. Jordie Barrett, Hurricanes
We’ve moved Barrett to 10, rather than his more regular spot at full-back, to accommodate Jordan, although this could well be where he ends up, at least in the short-term, for the Hurricanes. The younger Barrett brother’s talents are already well known and are such that he holds off challenges from Tiaan Falcon, Harry Plummer, Brett Cameron, Stephen Perofeta and Rivez Reihana here.
9. Sam Nock, Blues
Ere Enari is showing some promise at the Crusaders, although former age-grade standout Nock just edges this one for us. Nock has a nice all-round skill set to him and could mature into New Zealand’s next starter at the position once Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara have had their time. The partnership that Nock strikes up with Barrett in Auckland could also be key to his progression at the international level.
1. Ayden Johnstone, Highlanders
There are a lot of talented, albeit relatively untested looseheads currently in New Zealand rugby, such as Harry Allan, Xavier Numia, Pouri Rakete-Stones and Tamaiti Williams. For now, Johnstone has the advantage, with the former U20 standout starting to make the leap at the senior club level with the Highlanders. The competition here could be particularly exciting moving forward.
2. Asafo Aumua, Hurricanes
Another position where New Zealand don’t lack for talent, with the likes of Kianu Kereru-Symes, Brodie McAlister and Bradley Slater all emerging, but if Aumua can fully tap into the potential that he has, this is a no-brainer. His transition to senior rugby hasn’t been as seamless as he would have liked, though if he can sharpen up his play at the set-piece and learn how to use his physicality at this level, he will be as formidable as any hooker in the game.
3. Alex Fidow, Hurricanes
Fidow came through the New Zealand age-grade pathway at the same time as Johnstone and has already begun making his mark with the Hurricanes. Strong in the loose and at the set-piece, Fidow will push hard for international honours over the next season or two and should be a central part of the All Blacks squad come the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France.
4. Quinten Strange, Crusaders
Strange has quietly become an important squad member for the Crusaders in recent seasons, especially when they have had to deal with the losses of Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett to the All Blacks. Youngsters Taine Plumtree and Tupou Vaa’i might offer higher ceilings moving forward, but there is no guarantee that age-grade promise translates to senior impact, and that’s something that Strange already offers.
5. Isaia Walker-Leawere, Hurricanes
The next incumbent lock for the All Blacks, Walker-Leawere is developing nicely at the Hurricanes and should soon offer a complementary option to Barrett or Brodie Retallick, especially with Whitelock presumably coming towards the end of his international career. A force in the loose and potentially a very adept international lineout option, Walker-Leawere has his work cut out joining that vaunted group of locks, but he has the capability to.
6. Dalton Papalii, Blues
A mention for Hoskins Sotutu and Devan Flanders, both of whom look to have what it takes to eventually play international rugby, though neither has had the impact already that Papalii has. He has had a taste of the All Blacks and did not look out of place, bring plenty of physicality and work rate to the position. There is no urgency for New Zealand to move on with their options on the flank, though Papalii could force their hand.
7. Du’Plessis Kirifi, Hurricanes
Kirifi is the archetypal hard as nails openside flanker and he has had plenty of joy already with the Hurricanes, which is enough to see off the challenge of Sione Havili, a prime breakout contender at the Crusaders. As good as Kirifi has been, though, his immediate international future relies heavily on the prospects of Sam Cane and Ardie Savea, with both looking to have another Rugby World Cup cycle in them.
8. Luke Jacobson, Chiefs
Somewhat of a Swiss Army Knife, you could plug Jacobson into any spot in the All Black back row, task him with any of the traditional loose forward roles, and he will almost certainly give a good account of himself. At eight he would add to the team’s breakdown capabilities, at seven he would provide physicality and at six he would bring skill and carrying ability.
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