As is the case with the end of every World Cup cycle, a clear out of many national sides is imminent as some of the game’s greats step away from the international arena in the twilight of their respective careers.
It’s no different for the All Blacks, who aren’t just farewelling decorated head coach Steve Hansen, but also five of their long-serving stars, including 127-test captain Kieran Read.
He, alongside Ben Smith, Sonny Bill Williams, Ryan Crotty and Matt Todd, are set to leave New Zealand for greener financial pastures abroad, meaning the All Blacks have five holes to plug in their playing squad for next year.
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Furthermore, Brodie Retallick’s two-year sabbatical in Japan has opened an extra berth in the second row, adding to the rebuild that awaits the incoming coach.
With a whole Super Rugby campaign to be played between now and when the All Blacks next take to the field in July, it’s impossible to tell who exactly will be tasked with filling the enormous voids left by Retallick and the exiting quintet.
However, the announcement of the five New Zealand Super Rugby squads for the upcoming season earlier this week has provided an indication as to who the potential candidates to don the black jersey in 2020 might be.
Kieran Read – No. 8
The 34-year-old has ended his 11-year affiliation with New Zealand Rugby by taking up a contract with Toyota Verblitz in the Japanese Top League, but it is perhaps his spot in the team that will be most difficult to replace.
His domination of the No. 8 jersey over the past decade has allowed for little room for the development of others in his position at All Blacks level, while his leadership value will be sorely missed.
Losing such an integral player could result in an established squad member being selected at the base of the scrum next season to reduce the impact of Read’s defection, and Ardie Savea would stand as a prime contender for that role if that selection philosophy is implemented by the next All Blacks coach.
Traditionally an openside flanker, Savea wreaked havoc for both the Hurricanes and All Blacks this year from all three positions across the back row, and would act as a barnstorming replacement for Read given his robust, energetic and physical style of play.
If there is a desire for more fresh faces to be introduced into the national set-up, though, then it could be that Akira Ioane is the man for the job after spending years on the fringes of the All Blacks squad.
He made his international debut in a non-test against the French XV in Lyon two years ago, but is yet to make a full test appearance, with issues surrounding his work ethic and fitness levels offsetting the compelling offensive attributes he possesses.
Should he perform consistently all season with the Blues next year and show signs of improvement in areas of his game where he has traditionally struggled, then don’t be surprised to see Ioane back in the All Blacks environment in what is set to be a make-or-break stage of his career.
While it’s unlikely that they’ve registered on the national selection radar at this stage, it could pay to also keep an eye on uncapped duo Whetu Douglas (Crusaders) and Teariki Ben-Nicholas (Highlanders), both of whom have shown strong potential.
Ben Smith – Outside Back
Prior to his final test match against Wales in the World Cup bronze final, the 33-year-old had lost his place in the All Blacks starting lineup to Crusaders flyer Sevu Reece, but showed in that match how much his experience and quality will be missed as he scored a brace of tries and was unlucky to be denied a hat-trick.
When the All Blacks next face Wales at Eden Park on July 4, Reece will likely be the favourite to occupy the No. 14 jersey in Smith’s absence, but there are a plethora of candidates who have the potential to push their way into the national side’s starting lineup.
One of those contenders is Reece’s Crusaders teammate Braydon Ennor, who many believed was unlucky to miss out on World Cup selection as his composure, decision-making, versatility and defensive awareness emits maturity far beyond his 22 years of age.
Being able to cover the midfield as well as wing might hinder the one-test All Black’s starting prospects, though, as he may instead be considered a bench option.
That could open the door for others such as fellow Crusaders stars David Havili, who was sensational en route to Tasman’s maiden Mitre 10 Cup title, and Will Jordan, who is projected to play a big role in the All Blacks’ coming World Cup cycle.
Outside of Christchurch, electric trio Solomon Alaimalo, Chase Tiatia and Josh McKay could see Smith’s exit as their chance to snatch an unlikely spot in the All Blacks, so expect big campaigns from all three players for the Chiefs, Hurricanes and Highlanders, respectively.
Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty – Midfield
Two of the All Blacks’ greatest servants from over the past decade will leave a pair of giant holes in New Zealand’s midfield stocks next year after landing in two very different destinations following the World Cup.
Crotty will soon link up with the Kubota Spears in Japan ahead of the ensuing Top League campaign, while Williams has been the subject of a mega cross-code move to the Toronto Wolfpack, where he’ll earn $10 million playing in the English Super League with the Canadian league club over the next two years.
That leaves just Anton Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue from this year’s World Cup squad remaining in New Zealand, but, unless injury strikes, there should be no denying the destructive Ngani Laumape of a place in the All Blacks after he cruelly missed out on a place in Japan.
Given his ability to play both midfield and wing, the classy Ennor could be listed in the next All Blacks squad as a centre to free up room for some of the aforementioned outside backs.
It will also be interesting to see where Jordie Barrett fits into the picture, as while he can play virtually anywhere across the backline, it seems as though he’ll be targeting the No. 15 jersey next year after floating through various positions over the last few months.
If Barrett is deemed to be a second-five or centre by the All Blacks in 2020, though, then he could round out New Zealand’s midfield stocks leading into the July test series.
Challenging him for a place in the black jersey will be Chiefs newbie Quinn Tupaea, who has had massive raps on him since he made the New Zealand Schools side in 2017.
The 20-year-old has a very strong frame and has shown deft touches while playing for Waikato and New Zealand U20, and is considered by plenty of onlookers to be a key piece in the All Blacks’ future heading into the 2023 World Cup.
Elsewhere, TJ Faiane’s development continues to come in leaps and bounds with the Blues and Auckland, while the hard-hitting Sio Tomkinson is an underrated figure at the Highlanders.
Both have the ability to shine at Super Rugby level, and with at least two openings guaranteed in the All Blacks, a test call-up could beckon for either player if they play to their potential next season.
Matt Todd – Openside Flanker
One of the unluckier All Blacks in his early test career, Todd had to bide his time to win minutes at the international level as the likes of Cane, Savea and Richie McCaw dominated the No. 7 jersey throughout the decade.
However, he finished 2019 as one of the most prominent members within the All Blacks’ loose forward set-up, becoming an integral member of New Zealand’s matchday squads.
The 31-year-old leaves his homeland with 25 caps to his name, and as he arrives in Japan to begin his tenure with the Toshiba Brave Lupus, the search for his replacement gets underway.
As he prepares for life away from the @AllBlacks, departing New Zealand skipper Kieran Read has opened up about the opponents he found the toughest to face throughout his career.https://t.co/p1qENrxQpw
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 16, 2019
With Savea and Cane still in New Zealand, that search may be a case of finding a new suitable back-up to two of the country’s most established openside flankers, but should Savea – or Cane – fill the vacant No. 8 slot left by Read, then the urgency to unearth Todd’s replacement will escalate.
Leading the charge for a place in the All Blacks’ next squad will be youngsters Dalton Papalii and Luke Jacobson, who have a combined total of just five tests between them.
Regardless of their international experience, both 22-year-olds have big futures in the test arena thanks to their leadership qualities, immense work rates and dogged defensive capabilities.
Following those two closely is Du’Plessis Kirifi of the Hurricanes, who has shown similar attributes at both provincial and Super Rugby level during his time in Wellington.
Additionally, the Taranaki native punches well above his weight and wields immeasurable amounts of determination, making him one of the most promising loose forward prospects in New Zealand.
One-test All Black Dillon Hunt appears to have fallen well down the pecking order, with Highlanders teammate James Lentjes seemingly much closer to an international call-up after being the preferred option by head coach Aaron Mauger.
Lentjes headlines the best of the rest, which consists of the likes of the injury-riddled Blake Gibson (Blues) and Crusaders pilferer Billy Harmon.
Brodie Retallick – Lock
Although he will only be missing from the New Zealand rugby scene on a temporary basis, Retallick’s 18-month absence from Super Rugby and the All Blacks provides plenty of time for a new second-rower to be developed into an international-quality lock.
His sabbatical in Japan with the Kobelco Steelers presents the perfect opportunity to find someone to challenge Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett and Patrick Tuipulotu for a place in the national side, which should strengthen the All Blacks’ depth when it comes time to select their 31-man squad for France 2023.
South Africa are being urged to prove their status as world champions with a clean sweep over the All Blacks next year.https://t.co/7b4J6SrSYN
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 16, 2019
That person may well have been Jackson Hemopo, but his decision to take up a deal with the Mitsubishi DynaBoars in the Top League eliminates him from All Blacks’ eligibility.
Subsequently, that could pave the way for Blues sensation Tom Robinson to win selection, but he would need to recreate the majestic form he found himself in during his maiden Super Rugby season this year which put him on the All Blacks’ radar.
Predominantly used as a blindside flanker, he would probably also have to establish himself in the Blues’ second-row alongside Tuipulotu rather than on the side of the scrum, all while coming back from a torn meniscus which ruled him out of the Mitre 10 Cup.
Young Crusaders star Quinten Strange has been heralded as a future All Black thanks to his work at the lineout and strong ball-running ability, and with Whitelock on sabbatical in Japan for the entire Super Rugby campaign, 2020 could be the year that the 23-year-old comes of age.
The same could also be said of Hurricanes youngster Isaia Walker-Leawere, whose physicality and attacking talent hasn’t gone unnoticed, but he will be pushed by franchise teammates Liam Mitchell and James Blackwell.
He’s hard to miss, but keep your eyes peeled for Highlanders behemoth Pari Pari Parkinson, who has massive dimensions of 2.04m and 119kg.
His physical and aggressive presence would be of good value to the All Blacks, with their forward pack caught badly lacking mongrel by England in their 19-7 World Cup semi-final defeat.
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