When the final whistle blew on the last World Cup final, it marked the end of an era. Dan Carter took his triumphant return to form to Racing 92, Ma’a Nonu cashed up at Toulon, Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock took a well earned retirement, while Richie McCaw seemingly ascended to heaven – according to certain sections of the kiwi media.
OK, so McCaw simply retired as well, but it was feared at the time that the All Blacks may not be able to recover from such a loss of experience.
A 13-1 record in 2016 well and truly doused that theory. But now NZ rugby faces a second mass exodus, but this time it’s not the top guys that are exiting. Aaron Cruden, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, James Lowe, Charlie Faumuina, Malakai Fekitoa, Steven Luatua and Chiefs coach Dave Rennie represent a pretty fair cross section of the next tier down from the established All Black set up. And all of them have just played or coached their last game in Super Rugby.
There wasn’t much fanfare over the weekend for them. Like Fekitoa the week before, the Chiefs contingent of Cruden, Kerr-Barlow, Lowe and Rennie had an ignominious exit in front of a barely half full AMI Stadium in Christchurch. Faumuina and Luatua ended their Blues careers with a loss to the Sunwolves a couple of weeks ago.
Now, with all due respect, I’m not saying that these guys are in quite the same class as the 2015 lot that left. But it is a considerable amount of players that could’ve made a serious contribution to the national programme at least till the next World Cup.
Take Cruden for example. Even when Beauden Barrett caused many to get a little nervous every time he was handed the kicking tee, it’s not like he was about to be replaced. However, Cruden played a big hand in the first test, coming on for an injured Ben Smith and playing out most of the game at first five.
Likewise Faumuina. The prop with the ball skills of a back was seemingly set for a long career with the Blues and All Blacks, however the offshore money to be made was too much to say no to.
James Lowe may well have found himself on one of the All Black wings for the Lions series, and his exclusion only really served to temporarily prolong Julian Savea’s test career. He has been the form wing of the entire Super Rugby competition, and is worth every cent Leinster are paying him.
Dave Rennie’s departure is obviously a signal that he’s not in the frame for the All Black job in the near future, however his shift overseas still could impact player movement in the future. There’s been little shrouding the fact that former Blues coach Pat Lam was a major factor in Luatua’s move to Bristol, even prompting a rare public rebuke from Steve Hansen.
And these are just the most notable players that are off. Much is often made about New Zealand’s seemingly endless depth, and it’s going to be tested again.
A first glance though, it looks like it will be more the Super Rugby sides that will take the hit more than the All Blacks. Cruden and Rennie’s shift will especially hurt the Chiefs, while Faumuina leaving the Blues adds to their existing struggles with having experienced campaigners out on the field.
So while the end of 2015 was rightfully marked as the end of an era, at least it was well signposted. That one felt more like a celebration of a number of legendary careers, this one feels a tad more ominous. The All Blacks’ form of late hasn’t been exactly thrilling, and it leaves holes in almost all the franchises that will be a challenge to fill.
Although, it must be noted, the top performing Crusaders aren’t one of them. And, when you look at the issues that Australian and South African rugby in particular have to face on an annual basis, maybe letting a few guys go isn’t quite as critical as it seems.
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