As we near the end of January, the new Super Rugby season broadens on the approaching horizon.
The new campaign brings with it a flurry of new faces ready to imprint themselves on the national selection radar in the absence of an array of seasoned veterans who have taken their talents offshore.
In New Zealand, that void of experience will be felt across a range of positions at international level.
One-time World Rugby player of the year Brodie Retallick is also gone until next year, and he’s been joined in Japan by fellow lock Jackson Hemopo, midfielder Ryan Crotty and loose forwards Matt Todd and Kieran Read.
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That job will be made more difficult through the additional departures of those who have donned the black jersey before, but whose services weren’t called upon last year.
These players – such as Liam Squire, Waisake Naholo, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Luke Whitelock, Ma’a Nonu and Elliot Dixon – provided New Zealand with an extra layer of depth that few nations across the globe can rival.
It might bring discomfort to some that so many key figures have left Kiwi shores in such a short amount of time.
The losses of Read, Franks, Smith, Retallick and Williams leaves Ian Foster bare of five of his most experienced operators leading into 2020, while everyone else’s exits strips apart a significant chunk of the All Blacks’ enviably rich player pool.
But although New Zealand’s playing stocks have been decimated over the past 12 months, there remains a wealth of options at Foster’s disposal to alleviate concerns surrounding the drain of star power.
It was a similar situation for Franks, who missed out on Steve Hansen’s 31-man squad last year to the more dynamic Angus Ta’avao and Atu Moli, while new Hurricanes recruit Tyrel Lomax is expected to flourish after moving north from the Highlanders.
Even with the presence of three-test utility back David Havili, uncapped Crusaders flyer Will Jordan and promising Highlanders speedster Josh McKay, the prodigiously talented pair of Damian McKenzie and Jordie Barrett are in pole positions to replace Smith at fullback.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 26, 2020
Ngani Laumape should rocket his way back into national contention after missing out on World Cup selection, and if Braydon Ennor can live up to the dizzying potential that he’s shown glimpses of, then incumbent midfielders Anton Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue have a fight on their hands to fill the role as successors to Williams and Crotty.
In the pack, Todd’s arrival at the Toshiba Brave Lupus opens the door for Luke Jacobson, Dalton Papalii and Du’Plessis Kirifi to stamp their authority over the No. 7 jersey.
Even if Foster preferred to keep Savea and Cane in the openside role, Akira Ioane still looms as a damaging prospect should he be handed a chance at international level.
Similar assertions could be made about the depth charts at both blindside flanker and lock, but it is those two positions that have been left most vulnerable in the wake of New Zealand’s mass player migration abroad.
Squire was primed to take the No. 6 jersey until personal issues prevented him from representing the All Blacks ahead of his shift to the NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes.
In his place came Savea, who alternated the blindside and No. 8 roles with Read throughout the Bledisloe Cup series and World Cup while Cane held down the openside position.
When used, it was a largely successful loose forward combination, as the trio only tasted defeat once together when Scott Barrett’s red card allowed the Wallabies to secure a record 47-26 victory in Perth last August.
With Read now gone and Savea shaping as the early favourite to take the No. 8 spot, the hole at blindside flanker appears to have enlarged more than most other positions.
New Zealand's most experienced forwards had no response to England's young tyros. They've given plenty for their country, but @TomVinicombe suspects they might not have the gas for Test football anymore.https://t.co/esUdVUTyyA#AllBlacks #RWC2019 #ENGvNZL
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 31, 2019
Unlike at wing, fullback, midfield, tighthead prop, openside flanker and No. 8, there are few established contenders who can demand the All Blacks’ No. 6 like Squire did.
It’s an unresolved dilemma which arose last year when Squire’s unavailability forced Savea’s positional switch, and while that shift paid off in matches where he was selected at the short side of the scrum, Read’s exit has again exposed New Zealand’s lack of frontline blindside flankers.
He consequently lost out on a place at the World Cup to Jacobson, but the 22-year-old’s stint in Japan was short-lived due to lingering concussion problems which will restrict him from taking to the field with the Chiefs until next week at the earliest.
Jacobson’s injury replacement, Shannon Frizell, shone against lowly opponents Canada and Namibia, yet his exclusion from the match-day squad for New Zealand’s fatal semi-final against England was indicative of his status as a fringe member in the national ranks.
Hansen’s selection of Barrett as his starting No. 6 for that match was met with surprise and condemnation as it veered away from the Savea-Cane-Read trifecta, which ultimately played a key role in the All Blacks’ elimination from the tournament.
That’s not to say that Barrett isn’t a worthy option in the loose forwards given his tremendous physicality and set-piece prowess, but it’s difficult to envisage him being picked there this year considering New Zealand’s thin stocks at lock.
The newly-instated Crusaders captain should return to the All Blacks camp with Blues skipper Patrick Tuipulotu and Sam Whitelock, who is currently on sabbatical with the Panasonic Wild Knights in the Top League.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 28, 2020
Those three are bound to play integral roles in the All Blacks’ second row with Brodie Retallick out of action until 2021 as he enjoys time off in Japan with the Kobe Steelers.
Retallick’s extended time away opens an avenue for at least one new face to rise to national prominence.
That avenue would probably have been filled by Jackson Hemopo, but by linking up with the Mitsubishi Dynaboars, the former Highlanders utility forward not only ruled himself ineligible for international duties, but he has starved the All Blacks of a test-ready candidate at both lock and blindside flanker.
Instead, Foster will have to delve into the depths of Super Rugby to find adequate relief for both positions.
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?Guzzler Alert ?Gainline carries, linebreak assists, dominant tackles, lineout steals, offloads… All Black lock Brodie Retallick can do it all and he is owning the Top League right now. @kobelcosteelers_official ?? #nzrugby #allblacks #chiefsrugby #superrugby #????kobelcosteelers #kobelcosteelers #japantopleague #rugby #rugbygram
As such, the opening rounds of this year’s competition presents itself as an opportunity for the next generation of stars to stake an early claim for national honours come July.
Last year’s breakout star Tom Robinson has been named at lock for the Blues this weekend, while hefty expectations have been laid upon Highlanders behemoth Pari Pari Parkinson.
He’s been ruled out of action for the tournament’s opening five weeks, but the same can be said of Crusaders youngster Quinten Strange, who will no doubt be hoping to challenge for an All Blacks spot alongside fellow former New Zealand U20 stars Jacobson and Papalii.
How these promising up-and-comers fare over the course of the next six months remains to be seen, but for the sake of the All Blacks, their progress will be vital to filling the void left by Retallick and Read.
WATCH: Catch up on all of the very best from Round 3 of the Top League, featuring a host of international stars including Carter, Kahui, Retallick, Kerevi, Marks, Giteau, Snyman, Read, and many more.
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