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Three ways the All Blacks can improve their chances for the next World Cup

By Tom Vinicombe
Samisoni Taukei'aho. (Photo by Andrew Cornaga/Photosport)

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The All Blacks finished their season with 12 wins and three losses to their name, but it’s the fact that three of their four toughest matches fell the way of their opposition that has many concerned.

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While Ian Foster and his fellow coaches will be putting their heads together to figure out whether 2021 was just an anomaly of a season or if they need to seriously change things up, there are some (relatively) quick fixes that could put them in better stead for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Prioritise the games that matter for the older brigade

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The panel of Ross Karl, Bryn Hall and James Parsons run their eyes over all the developments from the past week of rugby.
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The panel of Ross Karl, Bryn Hall and James Parsons run their eyes over all the developments from the past week of rugby.

Come the 2019 Rugby World Cup semi-final clash with England, Sam Whitelock was just a shadow of the player he’d been throughout his nine-year career with the All Blacks.

The then-31-year-old was at one stage arguably the best lock in world rugby but after season upon season slogging away in the NZ engine room, Whitelock looked like a man who’d used up every ounce of energy. Against the likes of Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes, the 116-test international came off second best during the semi-final loss and struggled to have any impact on the game outside of the set-pice.

A year later, however, and the experienced second-rower looked back to his best. Whitelock had a spring in his step and in the six-test 2020 season, he was one of the best players on the All Blacks’ books. That was in large part thanks to his absence from the formative stages of Super Rugby, only returning to play for the Crusaders during their Aotearoa campaign after the Japanese Top League season was scrapped.

In 2020, Whitelock played 20 games altogether, including five for the Panasonic Wild Knights and two for Canterbury. This year, he’s played three more matches, but the level of intensity of many of his games has been higher, thanks to the longer Super Rugby season (12 matches instead of seven) and test calendar (10 matches instead of five). As such, it should come as no surprise that Whitelock again looked tired in the final stages of the year, with the 33-year-old surely running on empty in late November, having started the season nine months prior.

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It should also come as no surprise that he wasn’t the only All Black looking worse for wear. Codie Taylor, Nepo Laulala and Ardie Savea all had even bigger seasons than Whitelock, and all looked spent by the end of the season.

It’s not just the physical drain of playing regularly, however, it’s the mental drain of needing to be switched on to rugby for almost the entirety of the year.

If Ian Foster wants to get his best out of his players, that means giving them greater breaks throughout the year and, in an ideal world, giving them more time off in-between seasons.

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Understandably, there’s resistance to top All Blacks sitting out the Super Rugby season as it lowers the standard of the competition, which might mean New Zealand Rugby needs to get more creative with their planning and Foster needs to rethink when in the year he can have a few players sit out a few more matches.

Perhaps some senior All Blacks could head home early from the November tours. Perhaps the likes of Sam Whitelock and Codie Taylor don’t actually need to be on deck to play against the Wallabies every Bledisloe Cup match, given the relatively one-sided affairs those fixtures have become.

Obviously much of 2021 was dictated by the global pandemic but even in 2022 and beyond, the All Blacks are likely to play 13 or more tests a season, so the need to manage load will still exist once Covid is no longer a distraction.

Fast-track Samisoni Taukei’aho

While the older brigade need to have their minutes reduced, the younger players have shown this season that they can handle a busy schedule, and some of those young players need to get as much time in the saddle ahead of the 2023 World Cup as possible.

Once such player is hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho, who might eclipse Ethan Blackadder as the All Blacks’ find of season, especially given how he initially missed out on selection in the original squad for the year but was probably the in-form rake come November.

Taukei’aho possesses the power that was so markedly absent from the All Blacks’ pack during the final tests of the year – the kind of power that could seriously make a difference against the likes of England, South Africa and Ireland come the World Cup.

For whatever reasons, Taukei’aho wasn’t used against Ireland and was only given bench duties against France but in his 20-minute cameo against Les Bleus, the 24-year-old was arguably the All Blacks’ best player on the pitch.

The only concern with the young rake is his accuracy at the lineout but that wasn’t a problem that ever reared its head during the test season and provided that he can continue to build on All Blacks form for the Chiefs in Super Rugby Pacific, now is the time for Codie Taylor to take the backseat and Samisoni Taukei’aho to start lining up in the No 2 jersey against the top teams in the world.

Revitalise the front row

The All Blacks travelled to the USA and Europe with eight props this season: Joe Moody, Karl Tu’inukuafe, George Bower, Ethan de Groot, Nepo Laulala, Ofa Tuungafasi, Angus Ta’avao and Tyrel Lomax. How many of those front-rowers would feature in a World XV? Or a World 23? Or even in the top 10?

While some of the above players have aspects of their game that are up there with the best, none of them are complete packages. That’s fine for De Groot and Lomax, who are still in their formative years, but the other players are all approaching 30 (or are well past that point, in the case of Moody) and realistically aren’t likely to make many strides in the coming seasons.

Scrummaging remains an old man’s game but even Bower and Tuungafasi struggled considerably against France’s reserves over the weekend, despite their relative experience, while none of the props really possess skills across the park that have benefitted the All Blacks in any significant way over the past 12 months.

It’s unreasonable to expect every prop to be a Taniela Tupou but NZ’s best would struggle to compete with the Wallabies No 3 in any facet of the game.

The problems for the All Blacks are particularly concerning on the tighthead side of the scrum, where there are no obvious candidates coming through at Super Rugby level.

The likes of De Groot, Ollie Norris and Tamaiti Williams could all grow in powerhouses at loosehead but the cupboards are a bit threadbare in the No 3 jersey, especially with Atunaisa Moli continuing to struggle with injuries.

There’s just one full season left in the calendar before the Rugby World Cup kicks off, which means there’s not a lot of time for the All Blacks to right what’s slowly becoming a serious problem – but if Foster and co are willing to take another hit in the scrums next season, maybe 2022 looms as a chance to blood some more tightheads who may not yet be up to test standard but have the potential to be all-round excellent players in a couple of years time.

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Three ways the All Blacks can improve their chances for the next World Cup

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