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The race is on to decide who will fill Caleb Clarke's vacated No 11 jersey for the All Blacks

By Tom Raine

Trending on RugbyPass

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Last week both Caleb Clarke and Etene Nanai-Seturo announced their plans to link up with Clark Laidlaw and the All Blacks Sevens squad in the hopes of chasing gold at the re-scheduled Tokyo Olympics this July.

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Such an opportunity is certainly exciting for the two young wingers, especially given the successes both have already experienced while competing on the sevens circuit. Closer to home, however, the pairs’ move creates an increasingly intriguing prospect as to who might potentially feature for the All Blacks on the wing in the now confirmed July test against Fiji.

Clarke was a shining star of the inaugural Super Rugby Aotearoa in 2020 and earned five caps for the All Blacks that year off the back of some outstanding Blues performances. His powerful showings saw him rack up ten clean breaks, beat eighteen defenders and dot down twice for the Auckland franchise.

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Nor did the party stop once Clarke pulled on the black jersey. Few will forget his powerhouse performance against the Wallabies in Bledisloe II, announcing himself on the international stage in spectacular fashion with exciting shows of speed, strength and tenacity.

Yet in 2021, Clarke has at times struggled to make those same inroads with the Blues, perhaps in part falling victim to the successes of his debut season. There have undoubtedly been glimpses of his dynamism and the 22-year-old’s prominence in the top charts for clean breaks and metres carried is a testament to that. But in what was ultimately a mixed season for his team, Clarke’s wavering form in 2021 is perhaps just indicative of a wider issue for the Blues this year.

Now with his sights firmly set on pursuing his Olympic dream, Clarke’s absence may just leave the door open for other options to be considered in his place.

One such possibility might potentially have been sevens teammate Nanai-Seturo, who had a magic season with the Chiefs, showcasing exciting glimpses of an ever-evolving game. Anyone who has ever been on YouTube could tell you that Nanai-Seturo’s footwork has always been dangerous, and this year the Commonwealth Games gold-medallist produced some of his best work yet, beating a total of 35 defenders and scoring twice.

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But it was the 21-year-old’s effectiveness as a left-footed kicking option and his hunger for work off the ball that has been as equally as promising in this re-surgent Chiefs season. With he too off to Tokyo, arguably one of the form wingers of Super Rugby Aotearoa will be unavailable to fill a place in Ian Foster’s squad.

In 2020, Foster selected a total of six outside backs for the All Blacks’ Tri-Nations campaign and whilst debate this year has been tantalising as to the man who might wear 15, it is almost a certainty from a squad perspective that Damian McKenzie, Will Jordan and Jordie Barrett will all earn re-selection in 2021.

Most likely to fill a fourth spot in that sextet is Sevu Reece, who has shown consistent quality yet again this season for the Crusaders. The 24-year-old was a key contributor in achieving the five-peat, appearing in every game, scoring five tries and registering the most offloads in the competition. The eight-time All Black was as busy, physical and highly competitive as ever and has also shown a real range of attacking kicks in his game this season.

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That likely leaves two spots remaining to be filled in Foster’s outside backs contingent. Of course, some in this shortlist may nonetheless find themselves picked as midfielders in 2021 given both Jack Goodhue’s injury and Ngani Laumape’s impending move to Stade Francais, but utility is never a bad thing for a selector. Arguably, all six of these men are in contention for a black jersey and all six could realistically be picked to join the previous four names in the outside backs.

With that being said, here are the candidates:

George Bridge
Age:
26
Team:
Crusaders
All Blacks caps:
10
All Blacks tries:
9

Since making his All Blacks debut back in November 2018, Bridge has shaped himself as Mr Consistent, the heir apparent to Ben Smith’s title as captain of the ‘Bomb Squad’. After regularly featuring alongside Reece at the 2019 World Cup, injury cruelly ruled him out early in 2020.

This year, Bridge’s Crusaders return started less than ideally with a shock home loss to the Highlanders. However, he has slowly worked hard to regain his pre-injury form, grabbing two tries against the Hurricanes and in the grand final reminding us all of his world class aerial ability and effective positioning.

His presence in the squad would undoubtedly offer Foster a solid decision-maker and communicator in the back three and with more game time in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, Bridge’s upward trajectory of form would likely assure his chances of re-selection this year.

Jona Nareki
Age:
23
Team:
Highlanders
All Blacks caps:
0

If Super Rugby Aotearoa this year had stopped after round two, you would be hard placed to find a better candidate than Jona Nareki for a place in the All Blacks squad. Nareki by that stage of the competition had registered two try assists, three tries and beaten fourteen defenders. His game against the Chiefs in round two was simply one of the individual performances of the season.

The former U20s World Champion and sevens star has his own slick style of play and has at times also shown elements of a developing power game – and a booming left peg. Even more promising has been the partnership he has forged at the back with rookie Conor Garden-Bachop.

In 2021, Nareki has shown that he certainly has the potential to be a game-changer and whilst perhaps not the complete package defensively, his attacking stats are the envy of any on this list. If Ian Foster is keen to play ‘Moneyball’ then he would be wise to pay attention to a man in the top ten for tries, clean breaks, defenders beaten and metres carried.

Salesi Rayasi
Age:
24
Team:
Hurricanes
All Blacks caps:
0

Rayasi was an excitement machine down in the capital this season. Following two impressive cameos off the bench, he was subsequently rewarded with five starts and left his mark in a big way.

The son of former Fiji international Filipe Rayasi, Salesi displayed an impressive finishing ability, bagging three tries in 2021. But then again, followers of the Mitre 10 Cup could attest to Rayasi’s nose for a try – 14 scores last year, a joint-record since the competition was reconstructed.

What is potentially most exciting and unique about Rayasi, is the influence of basketball on his rugby skillset. At 193cm, Rayasi is the average height of an NBA point guard and has a jumping ability to match. Moreover, his rangy stature and sevens experience saw him produce eleven offloads this season, adding pace and elusiveness to the Hurricanes backline.

Rayasi potentially offers real X-factor on the wing for the All Blacks, à la Clarke 2020, and unlike Nanai-Seturo and Clarke, his commitment to Super Rugby Trans-Tasman gives Foster an assurance that he is serious about an opportunity at international honours.

Julian Savea
Age:
30
Team:
Hurricanes
All Blacks caps:
54
All Blacks tries:
46

It is easy to forget just how incredible Julian Savea was in the 2010s. Despite not featuring in World Rugby’s recent Team of the Decade, it was hard for fans and pundits alike to keep the World Cup winner out of the conversation.

Savea possesses an awesome international try-scoring ratio and is joint ninth on the all-time try-scorers list, but it has been four years since his last appearance in black.

‘Hungry’ is perhaps the word that best describes Savea’s return season with the Canes. In six starts on the wing Savea scored once. But in that time, he showed his international aerial ability and displayed tenacity and fight in his performances. He has looked for work across the park in attack and defence and been tireless in his kick chase. His physicality, whilst admittedly not ‘vintage-Savea’ has been about as good as you’d expect from a man nicknamed the Bus.

Representing the more unexpected potential pick for Foster, Savea is nonetheless an experienced head and in signing a contract extension with the Canes has signalled that he is serious about remaining in New Zealand and competing.

Leicester Fainga’anuku
Age:
21
Team:
Crusaders
All Blacks caps:
0

Leicester Fainga’anuku has been a potential star in the making for a long time now. The Tasman Mako regular made his debut for the Crusaders back in 2019 and in his rookie season in 2020 showed plenty of promise. This year, however, Fainga’anuku has undeniably been one of the most impressive members of a star-studded Crusaders champion team.

Fainga’anuku made five starts on the wing this year and two at centre and was a force of nature wherever he slotted in. His grand final performance alone at No 13 made many certain that he is to fill the gap in the All Blacks midfield left by injured teammate Goodhue and the departing Laumape. But on the wing as well, Fainga’anuku will likely create just as much impact at international level.

His physical presence has been one that defences just haven’t been able to contend with and his 188cm, 109kg frame puts him up there with some of the most dominant wingers in the world right now.

For the All Blacks, Fainga’anuku represents the quintessential power winger, eager to make carries and likely to profit off them.

Rieko Ioane
Age:
24
Team:
Blues
All Blacks caps:
34
All Blacks tries:
26

You might be forgiven for not knowing that Ioane himself declared in 2020 that he is a centre and that that is where he aims to play internationally. True to form, Ian Foster in 2020 selected him as a midfielder and in the Blues 2021 campaign that is where he played every game.

Statistically speaking Ioane has had a fairly decent outing at centre this season, featuring in the top charts for clean breaks, carries and metres gained. His consistent presence in that Blues backline amongst chopping and changing around him has also been promising.

Yet internationally, Ioane has always made his reputation as a winger and in the rest of 2020, Foster reverted to that familiar set-up, twice from the bench and in one start. This potentially only served to cause confusion for both management and player as to where he is to be best utilised.

Ioane’s ability as an international winger cannot be faulted. He has a scoring ratio to rival that of Savea, Bridge and Reece and pace straight from the sevens scene. The question remains however whether Foster will grant Ioane time at centre to build and develop internationally or whether he will revert to where he began his All Blacks journey.

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The race is on to decide who will fill Caleb Clarke's vacated No 11 jersey for the All Blacks

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