As Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu, Keven Mealamu and Conrad Smith were signing off their test careers with a World Cup win at Twickenham in 2015, future All Blacks wing Sevu Reece was finishing high school at Hamilton Boys’ and playing against the Australian Schools side for New Zealand Schools.
In what seemed like an improbability at that time, Reece would break through to international rugby in just four years. Even late in this four-year cycle, it wasn’t clear this would happen.
It was only in 2019 that Reece propelled through Super Rugby on a short-term Crusaders contract to make the All Blacks squad for the World Cup in Japan.
Reece’s fast rise is fairly common – Dalton Papalii, Luke Jacobson and Josh Ioane are all recent All Blacks who can attest to that.
As the cream of each yearly crop rises through the system, some continue growing more than others. Some benefit from timing, coming through at the right time where there is a positional need, and some just adapt to the next level immediately.
By the time the All Blacks reach the next World Cup in four years’ time, this will happen again for a number of young prospects.
Will Jordan, Quinten Strange, Quinn Tupaea and Etene-Nanai Seturo are already established enough at Super Rugby level or high-profile enough prospects to be considered likely to debut, but here are some relative unknowns who could be capped before the All Blacks land in France in 2023.
Devan Flanders – Loose Forward (Hurricanes)
With Ardie Savea missing significant Super Rugby time in 2020, the Hurricanes rookie is in a position to accelerate his development next year with significant game time putting him on a one-to-two year path to the All Blacks.
A caveat will be where the Hurricanes see Flanders’ future in the short-term, either at 6 or 8.
New Zealand is experiencing a shortage of pure No. 8s with the departures of Crusaders legend Kieran Read and Highlander Luke Whitelock.
As a stopgap, Savea became the secondary cover for Read as Akira Ioane continued to be overlooked by national selectors.
Over the next four years, Hawke’s Bay product Flanders has the opportunity to become a pillar in the All Blacks’ back row stocks if he is playing at No. 8 for the Hurricanes.
Niko Jones – Loose Forward (Blues region)
The Blues have stockpiled some of the best age grade talent in the loose forwards over the recent years.
Dalton Papalii, Akira Ioane and Blake Gibson were all standout U20 products, while Northland’s Tom Robinson impressed this year, but only Papalii has progressed to the All Blacks so far as Gibson has battled injuries and Ioane has fallen out of favour with selectors.
There is another on the way through the Blues system although currently with the All Blacks Sevens squad.
Niko Jones, the son of franchise legend Michael Jones, is aligned with Auckland. The 19-year-old will likely re-join the 15-man code in the next couple of years, meaning something has to give at the Blues.
Jones is a generational talent that has thoroughbred athleticism, sublime skills and his time in Sevens is going to push his conditioning to another level.
He has physicality in contact and an ability over the ball that makes him a more complete prospect than Ioane. Armed with youthful exuberance, Jones could push Ioane out of the picture in a couple of years.
A feasible scenario is that Ioane heads offshore after getting an irrefutable offer, with pressure coming from Jones for his starting position at the Blues. After two seasons of Super Rugby, Jones could be a prime candidate for a fast rise to the All Blacks.
Anton Segner – Loose Forward (Crusaders region)
The end of the World Cup saw a number of loose forwards leave the Crusaders’ new dynasty. Kieran Read, Matt Todd and Jordan Taufua have departed, while Pete Samu left a year ago to chase Wallaby gold.
A regeneration of sorts will occur in 2020 with a mix of mid-level experienced players in Billy Harmon, the underrated Whetu Douglas and Ethan Blackadder.
Age-grade talent in Cullen Grace and Tom Christie have also been elevated to supplement loose forwards in the full-time squad.
However, there is one prospect that resides in Tasman that has the potential to push right through the system at a rapid speed.
German-born Anton Segner, a blue-chip prospect out of Nelson College, who is a monstrous openside with the body of a No. 8, already listed at 108kg and 1.92cm. He possesses a bigger frame than Niko Jones and is a skilled hunter of the ball at the breakdown.
The two-time New Zealand schoolboy will likely play U20s and Mitre 10 Cup next year with the Mako, pushing for Super Rugby inclusion by 2021.
Give or take a year, when Segner hits Super Rugby, the national selectors will be taking notice and he could become Germany’s first All Black.
Folau Fakatava – Halfback (Highlanders)
He’s not a household name yet, but Folau Fakatava showed just why the Highlanders moved very early on him last year after a couple of Super Rugby games.
The Hawke’s Bay product ripped off a long break from deep in his own half against the Hurricanes, a franchise that he sat under the noses of while at Hastings Boys’.
A running halfback with electric feet and combative defence, Fakatava is going to grow into a force at Super Rugby level in his early twenties.
Whatever the Hurricanes excuses are for not signing Fakatava are, they are not good enough.
They have TJ Perenara but the Highlanders have Aaron Smith, and Fakatava is going to climb high in the pecking order over the next few years that might just surpass both of them.
As a similar No. 9 to Perenara, it might be his position on the All Blacks’ bench that becomes in jeopardy if Fakatava reaches his potential.
The Highlanders may have Fakatava for 10 years after Smith retires or moves overseas, while the Hurricanes have no foreseeable generational talent behind Perenara.
It could end up a baffling error given they have carried Jamie Booth and Finlay Christie on the roster over the last couple of seasons, leaving Fakatava available for the Highlanders.
Fergus Burke – First five (Crusaders)
A smokey pick for an All Blacks’ cap based on the Crusaders’ ability to mould All Blacks, and particularly produce first-fives.
Burke is a prototype No. 10 who has come through the Canterbury system in no time to fill a spot on Crusaders squad for 2020.
Out of the Waikato, Burke was a New Zealand Barbarians selection in 2017 behind Lincoln McClutchie and Rivez Reihana in the New Zealand Schools team.
Two years later, Burke is the first of the three to land a Super Rugby squad after piloting the U20 side last year as the first-choice first-five.
He will initially sit behind Richie Mo’unga and Brett Cameron, but over four years, change is the only constant.
When Mo’unga’s next contract comes up for renewal, his value will be significantly higher, while Cameron could be looking for a place to start more often.
Reihana has all the tools to make the All Blacks also, but in the Chiefs system behind Aaron Cruden and Damian McKenzie, it may take a little bit longer to get regular action at Super Rugby level.
In the outside backs, there are plenty of talented prospects already hitting Super Rugby such as Leicester Fainga’anuku, Danny Toala, Kini Naholo, Ngani Punivai, Peter and Thomas Umaga-Jensen, and Emoni Narawa, all of whom will reach their mid-20’s in this cycle.
As history suggests, there will be more than one that rockets through to the All Blacks faster than expected.
The Season finale with Hamilton Boys High School:
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