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What's happened to New Zealand's openside flanker conveyor belt?

By Tom Vinicombe
Ardie Savea, Dalton Papalii and Sam Cane are the sole openside flankers capped by the All Blacks in 2019 who will be playing Super Rugby in 2020. (Photos by Getty Images)

It doesn’t take a rugby genius to know that New Zealand have been blessed with talent in the 7 jersey over the years.


Richie McCaw led the All Blacks to successive World Cup titles.

Before him came the likes of Josh Kronfield, Michael Jones, Waka Nathan and Graham Mourie.

In 2019, New Zealand travelled to the World Cup with Sam Cane, Ardie Savea and Matt Todd; three players who have all stood out in Super Rugby but haven’t yet put out exceptional performance after exceptional performance in the international game.

That’s not to say they aren’t capable of it.

Continue reading below…

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Cane was starting to come into his own as a Test player before a horror neck injury ruled him out for most of the 2018 season, as well as the first half of the 2019 Super Rugby year.

In contrast, Savea had been mostly stuck behind Cane but the injury allowed Savea to regularly start in the 7 jersey. It came as no surprise to anyone when he put in a number of superlative performances over 2018 and 2019 and was ultimately named the All Blacks’ player of the 2019 season.

Todd, like Savea, has had limited gametime for the All Blacks but has never let the side down.

Still, the trio haven’t asserted themselves consistently on the international stage – at least nowhere near to the extent of McCaw.


McCaw, considered by many to be the greatest player of all time, was a master of the breakdown – he knew when to push his luck and when to hold back.

He may not have been the best fetcher to grace a rugby field, but he was better equipped to deal with referees than some of his competitors have been.

There’s still plenty of time for the likes of Cane and Savea to stamp their names into the history books but they aren’t quite there yet. Todd, on the other hand, will likely play out the rest of his rugby career in Japan.

It’s the next level down where there’s some cause for concern from a New Zealand point of view.

McCaw was earmarked to be a superstar from an early age, making both the New Zealand Under 19 and Under 21 sides.

It’s a similar story for Cane and Savea, who represented the New Zealand Under 20 side in 2011 and 2013 respectively.

If recent history is anything to go by, New Zealand’s next top openside flanker should have progressed through the age-grade sides and well on his way to becoming a professional rugby player.

It’s there where New Zealand has a bit of a problem.

Since 2014, a number of highly capable players have worn the 7 jersey for the New Zealand Under 20 side but they haven’t quite progressed into the top ranks of Super Rugby for one reason or another.

Arguably the most promising has been Cambridge Boys’ product Mitchell Jacobson – older brother of All Blacks Luke.

Jacobson spent three years with the Under 20s and captained the side in his final year in 2016.

The now-23-year-old is highly capable in all three loose forward positions and has clocked up plenty of mileage for Waikato, but two appearances for the Chiefs is all that Jacobson has to show for it at Super Rugby level.

Jacobson has now taken up a contract with the Sunwolves for 2020.

His fellow openside flankers in the Under 20s haven’t fared too much better.

In 2014, Lachlan Boshier was the other number 7 in the squad. He’s proven himself as a solid performer for the Chiefs in recent years, especially in Sam Cane’s absence, but the Taranaki-born flanker likely won’t ever make the All Blacks.

That’s not a problem in of itself – not every player needs to reach the heights of full national representation – but when it’s happening across the board, it becomes a bit of a worry.

In 2015, Mitchell Karpik and Blake Gibson, both out of Auckland, joined the Under 20s. Karpik, like his predecessors, has been picked up by the Chiefs while Gibson has been a regular for the Blues when fit and able.

Karpik, in particular, impressed for Auckland in a breakout 2015 season and looked like an All Black in waiting, but progress with the Chiefs has been slow, in part due to the presence of Cane and Boshier.

Meanwhile, up the road in Auckland, Gibson has struggled with his fair share of injuries. 41 appearances over four seasons isn’t a mammoth return and the former St Kentingern College captain is at risk of falling behind thanks to the other young prospects coming through the ranks.

Mitchell Jacobson, as captain, started all of the New Zealand Under 20 squad’s matches on the openside flank in 2016. Dalton Papalii and Luke Jacobson were also members of the team, however, and Papalii, in particular, has shown plenty of form on the openside in the years since.

Papalii, at least at this stage, appeals as one of the few long-term prospects for the All Blacks’ 7 jersey.

Papalii was selected in the All Blacks in both 2018 and 2019 and has been one of the Blues’ best performers over the last three years. His ability to cover all three loose forward positions is a huge plus, but the sizeable flanker will have to master at least one his roles if he’d like to make more of an impact on the international scene.

2017 saw Auckland Adrian Choat and Cantabrian Tom Christie take the reins on the openside flank. Choat has since left New Zealand to take up a contract with Pat Lam’s Bristol side in the English Premiership. Although Choat is only covering for injuries, the fact that the flanker is English-eligible could see him remain in Europe.

Christie looms as a potentially massive player for the Crusaders heading forward. The former Shirley Boys’ captain made his provincial debut for Canterbury in 2017 and played a major role in the 2017 and 2018 Under 20 seasons.

2020 will see Christie debut for the Crusaders and with Matt Todd now plying his trade overseas, there’s a genuine chance that Christie could lock down the 7 jersey before the season comes to an end – although that would require him leapfrogging another relatively young gun, 25-year-old Billy Harmon.

In 2018, Christie was joined in the Under 20s by Napier local Will Tremain, grandson of former All Black great, Kel. Tremain debuted for Hawke’s Bay in 2018 but was kept out of the matchday squad in 2019 due to the presence of a number of experienced loose forwards.

2019 saw two new Bay of Plenty talents step into the openside flanker role for the New Zealand Under 20s: Kohan Herbert and Jeriah Mua. The pair co-captained their province’s development side in the latter stages of the year.

The truth of the matter is that there are evidently plenty of players coming through the ranks, they’re just seemingly hitting roadblocks that prevent them from making great strides once they hit the Super Rugby level.

Sam Cane and Ardie Savea were playing Super Rugby in the same year that they were on show for the New Zealand Under 20s. The only other openside flanker to have achieved that feat since 2014 is Blake Gibson, illustrating the change in fortunes for New Zealand’s up-and-coming opensides.

It’s not all doom and gloom, of course. Cane and Savea will hold down the 7 jersey in the All Blacks for the coming years, which still leaves plenty of time for another brilliant fetcher to emerge on the scene – but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the conveyor belt of talent isn’t quite running as smooth as it has in the past.

WATCH: Matt Todd, who departed New Zealand’s shores after the Rugby World Cup, has been one of New Zealand’s most underrated players over the last decade.

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