The rarest of the rare: An All Blacks bolter?
For a number of reasons, New Zealand rugby is often not in a place to accommodate a bolter late in a RWC cycle. Their succession planning position-by-position tends to be world leading and they do a good job of integrating emerging players earlier in a cycle and getting them test match experience. They then look after the workload of their players in a RWC year as well as, if not better, than anyone else, ensuring they tend to have a healthy and fresh squad come the beginning of the tournament.
Throw into the mix that they are only picking players from five Super Rugby franchises, rather than the 12 or 14 clubs that the English and French do respectively, and it’s understandable that there aren’t too many last-minute additions to the All Blacks in the run-up to the quadrennial tournament.
Nehe Milner-Skudder was one to buck this trend in 2015, featuring only in back-to-back Bledisloe Cup games before going on to star at the RWC in England, whilst Waisake Naholo also warranted a call-up with just one game for New Zealand under his belt at that time.
Brendon Leonard was relatively new to the set-up in 2007, before he went on to deputise for Byron Kelleher in France, but that was largely as a result of Piri Weepu’s exclusion following some off-field issues during the then Tri Nations.
The examples are few and far between over the last three RWCs and that’s an acknowledgement of how well New Zealand have adapted to the professional era, their talent identification and their ability to plan successfully for these showpiece tournaments, particularly after the hard lessons they learned between 1991 and 2003.
That all said, it’s clearly not impossible to break your way into an international side with just months to go, even one as adept and consistent as the All Blacks, and one player putting up his hand for what many would of thought an unlikely opportunity earlier this year, is Will Jordan.
The 21-year-old has been on a trajectory that leads to the All Blacks for a few years now, but when a head injury suffered for Tasman raised concussion fears – something which ultimately proved to be an inner-ear issue – it saw him miss out on the 2018 Super Rugby season with the Crusaders.
He had just lit up the World Rugby U20 Championship in 2017, helping guide New Zealand to an emphatic 64-17 victory over England in the final, and there were expectations that he would translate that ability to Super Rugby in 2018. Plenty of his international teammates did just that, with Luke Jacobson, Braydon Ennor and Dalton Papali’i among those that impressed at the next level, whilst opportunities also came for Caleb Clarke, Stephen Perofeta, Orbyn Leger and Isaia Walker-Leawere.
Tasman, the Crusaders and New Zealand rugby, quite rightfully, played it cautiously with Jordan, however, meaning he was sidelined as those players began to forge a name for themselves in Super Rugby, with Papali’i even going on to make his senior international debut.
Good things come to those who wait, though, and 2019 has seen Jordan finally explode onto the global scene.
His eight tries in the competition are tied for the most with Rieko Ioane and Jack Maddocks, and have come in just seven appearances. Even more impressively, they’ve come in just 348 minutes of rugby, compared to the 576 minutes of Ioane and the 514 minutes of Maddocks.
This explosive output has been backed up by the RPI, with one of the steepest improvements since the index was created, as Jordan’s value has risen from 56 at the beginning of the season to 82 at the time of writing. Like Ennor before him, he is making himself an integral member of the most effective side in Super Rugby.
The long-term injury issues suffered by Israel Dagg and his recent retirement have obviously created opportunities for Jordan with the Crusaders, but it’s not just as a full-back that he has impressed. He has shown that not only can he control a game and provide a counter-attacking threat in the 15 jersey, he can also finish and track play on the wing as well as anyone. It’s the same kind of back three versatility that Milner-Skudder offered the All Blacks in the build-up to the 2015 RWC.
He is, to be fair, playing in a very good Crusaders side that have a habit of making players look impressive and that is worth taking into consideration when comparing his output with that of Ioane and Maddocks, but it’s the same kind of environment that he would be enjoying with the All Blacks, should they come calling this year.
A call, perhaps, that has been made more likely by the ACL injury suffered by Damian McKenzie.
McKenzie has floated between fly-half and full-back over the last couple of seasons, albeit with most of his appearances for the All Blacks coming at 15, and his absence potentially creates a void within the squad, with Ioane, Jordie Barrett and Ben Smith all used on the wing in recent games. If Steve Hansen is comfortable with J Barrett picking up the slack at 10 in training should there be any minor knocks to older brother Beauden Barrett or Richie Mo’unga, could the versatile Jordan be the man to make a late push for RWC selection?
There is no like-for-like replacement for McKenzie, in terms of a hybrid fly-half/full-back, whilst the drop-off after the trio of he, B Barrett and Mo’unga in New Zealand’s stock of fly-halves is notable. Alternatively, Jordan would represent a plug and play option in the back three that would free up J Barrett, Smith, Ioane and Naholo to play wherever Hansen deems them most effective.
After the setbacks of 2018, it seemed as if Jordan would have to wait until after the RWC for another opportunity to don the silver fern, but with his play for the Crusaders proving to be as effective as it is, combined with valuable versatility in a tournament that has short turnarounds and limited squad size, things seem as if they are aligning for Jordan to be that rarest of things, an All Blacks bolter.
There are eight games left in the Crusaders’ regular season, plus a very likely playoff run, for Jordan to continue to impress in the free-flowing way he has with the franchise, but if he is to genuinely make a run at the RWC, he will need to show his ability to manage a game and cope with the physicality of international rugby.
A condensed Rugby Championship kicks off in July, with the All Blacks taking on Argentina in Buenos Aires and South Africa in Wellington, before back-to-back fixtures with Australia. Chances are that Jordan will need to be involved in this series if he is to have a real shot at featuring in the RWC warm-up game against Tonga and making it to Japan later this year.
He wasn’t one of the 16 backs selected for a training camp in Wellington this week, but with McKenzie now set to miss the RWC, Jordan could be hot on the heels of the current incumbents as Hansen begins to finalise his plans for the tournament.
To break into a group that also features franchise teammate George Bridge, in addition to all those other names already mentioned, is no mean feat, but it is one that Jordan, week on week, is looking increasingly capable of achieving.
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