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The men best placed to feature in an All Blacks development squad in 2022

By Tom Vinicombe
Tom Robinson and Bailyn Sullivan. (Photos by Getty Images)

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While both the All Blacks and Maori All Blacks are now getting their seasons underway with upcoming fixtures against the touring Irish, there’s another New Zealand men’s side that’s waiting in the shadows.

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In 2020, New Zealand Rugby announced the return of the second-tier All Blacks side – formerly known as New Zealand ‘A’ and the Junior All Blacks, but now rebranded as the All Blacks XV. Unlike the Junior All Blacks, however, the new side wouldn’t necessarily capture the eligibility of any players who don the jersey.

The All Blacks XV were set to play three matches during that year’s November window (just one game was officially announced, against Fiji in Vancouver) but with Covid curtailing the season and also complicating last year’s proceedings, the team has been sidelined ever since it was first revealed.

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Reacting to the first All Blacks squad of the season.
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Reacting to the first All Blacks squad of the season.

While nothing has been announced for 2022, NZR will undoubtedly be looking at ways to introduce the second-tier of New Zealand players to the world and it could be as early as this year’s Autumn Nations series that the All Blacks XV finally grabs some limelight.

Although the Maori All Blacks are currently in camp, it’s expected that the two sides won’t operate at the same time, meaning the All Blacks XV will always have access to the next-best players in the country, behind the men who make the top side.

Based on the squads that have already been named for July, which players from around NZ would likely feature in an All Blacks XV on a possible end-of-year tour?

Asafo Aumua is the sole hooker from last year’s All Blacks campaign to miss out on selection this year but is still likely considered the next cab off the ranks. Behind him, Kurt Eklund has had a stormer of a year for the Blues and was talked about in some circles as a potential bolter for the national side. Other options include young Chiefs rake Tyrone Thompson, who has stood out in his few Super Rugby Pacific appearances to date and has earned selection alongside Eklund in the Maori All Blacks side, while Brodie McAlister has impressed for the Crusaders and Soane Vikena has started his professional career off well with the Blues.

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On the loosehead side of the scrum, jilted All Blacks Ethan de Groot and Alex Hodgman would form an excellent one-two punch while Ollie Norris came on in leaps and bounds for the Chiefs this season and possesses one of the best open-field games of any front-rower in NZ. Tyrel Lomax has missed out on national selection this season but will continue to develop with the Maori All Blacks and would be a likely starter in the No 3 jersey for the All Blacks XV while Crusaders youngsters Tamaiti Williams and Fletcher Newell show plenty of promise.

In the second row, young Crusader Zach Gallagher certainly looks one for the future but may find himself sitting behind some more experienced options, such as teammate Quinten Strange. Isaia Walker-Leawere has made a massive contribution in the back-end of the season for the Hurricanes while Manaaki Selby-Rickit has caught the eyes of the selectors in the past thanks to his physicality around the park. Factor in the return of Patrick Tuipulotu – who might find it difficult to force his way past the current five locks selected in the All Blacks, and the second-tier side will be well served in the second row, ever before considering options such as Josh Dickson, Naitoa Ah Kuoi and the injured Mitch Dunshea.

With so many loose forwards playing the house down throughout Super Rugby Pacific, some top players are likely to miss out on selection even in the All Blacks XV. The likes of Shannon Frizell, Luke Jacobson, Cullen Grace and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u are all there or thereabouts when it comes to higher honours while Billy Harmon is probably ahead of Tom Christie and Du’Plessis Kirifi in the pecking order. Throw in utility forward Tom Robinson, who’s been an exceptional performer for the Blues for a number of years, and the All Blacks XV would be capable of competing with some of the top test nations in the loose forwards. Others, such as the Hurricanes duo of Devan Flanders and Brayden Iose also wouldn’t be far away.

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Maori All Blacks halfbacks Brad Weber and TJ Perenara would be entrusted with the same duties for the second-tier NZ side but perhaps the national coaches would reconsider their pecking order, given that Finlay Christie and Folau Fakatava would also be able to play for the All Blacks XV but are ineligible for the Maori side. If the selectors are as much looking to the future of the national team as they are interested in the here and now then young Chiefs No 9 Cortez Ratima could grab the third spot in the squad – although others such as Mitch Drummond and Sam Nock would be there or thereabouts.

With Damian McKenzie back on deck later in the year, will Stephen Perofeta be able to hold his place in the All Blacks? Potentially not – but maybe Perofeta will be served by getting some game time under his belt with the second XV after spending a number of weeks in camp with the top side. Josh Ioane likely remains the next cab off the ranks but should he look to switch allegiances to Samoa in the near future, perhaps Aidan Morgan or Ruben Love could take his spot in the squad.

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The probable starting Maori midfield of Bailyn Sullivan and Alex Nankivell would likely be redeployed into the All Blacks XV while Braydon Ennor would certainly also get a call-up. Upon Anton Lienert-Brown’s return from injury, it’s one of the current members of the national squad might have to make way, which could see Quinn Tupaea available for the ABs XV. A fit-again Thomas Umaga-Jensen would have to be close to the selection too, while his brother Peter will need to get some regular game time under his belt if he wants to advance his career.

That leaves the outside backs – where George Bridge would inevitably find himself alongside a host of younger talent such as Zarn Sullivan, Salesi Rayasi and AJ Lam. Add Mark Telea and Josh Moorby into the picture and other potential future stars like Connor Garden-Bachop will have to sit out.

There’s an understandable concern floating around New Zealand’s place in the test pecking order at present following a disappointing 2021 and while there are certainly positions that boast less depth than others, the sheer amount of talent that would be scattered throughout an All Blacks XV should quell any fears that the future is bleak.

Possible All Blacks XV:

Hookers: Asafo Aumua, Kurt Eklund, Tyrone Thompson
Props: Ethan de Groot, Alex Hodgman, Ollie Norris, Tamaiti Williams, Tyrel Lomax, Fletcher Newell
Locks: Patrick Tuipulotu, Quinten Strange, Isaia Walker-Leawere, Manaaki Selby-Rickit
Loose forwards: Shannon Frizell, Luke Jacobson, Tom Robinson, Cullen Grace, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Billy Harmon
Halfbacks: Brad Weber, TJ Perenara, Cortez Ratima
First fives: Josh Ioane, Stephen Perofeta
Centres: Bailyn Sullivan, Alex Nankivell, Braydon Ennor, Quinn Tupaea
Outside backs: George Bridge, Mark Telea, Zarn Sullivan, Salesi Rayasi, Josh Moorby, AJ Lam

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