2020 was supposed to be a year of change and growth for the All Blacks.
Steve Hansen’s incredibly successful tenure as head coach of the New Zealand national side came to an end last year following the Rugby World Cup while the All Blacks also farewelled Matt Todd, Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams, Ben Smith and captain Kieran Read.
Wales and Scotland were scheduled to travel to New Zealand in July, with the All Blacks set to play the same sides at the end of the year, along with World Cup finalists England.
With a new head coach in the form of Ian Foster, and a new four-year World Cup cycle set to begin, big things were expected for 2020.
The global pandemic changed things, however. The All Blacks played just six matches this year and opportunities for welcoming in a new generation of talent have been few and far between.
Foster fielded what was close to a first XV for the opening three fixtures of the calendar in order to secure the Bledisloe Cup. That was necessary, thanks to the opening draw in Wellington.
Alex Hodgman, Tupou Vaa’i, Hoskins Sotutu and Caleb Clarke were the only debutants used in those first three games, with Clarke netting two starts and Vaa’i and Sotutu playing one apiece.
In the fourth and final test against the Wallabies, with the Bledisloe Cup locked up, Foster handed four more players their All Blacks debuts – Akira Ioane, Asafo Aumua, Cullen Grace and Will Jordan.
Ioane was the only starter and his night was cut short thanks to a red card to prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi. Grace had just a handful of minutes while Jordan was pulled when he suffered a head knock shortly after running onto the field.
Aumua, meanwhile, played just 10 minutes on his debut – the only minutes the young hooker accrued for the All Blacks throughout the year.
The two games against Argentina also failed to offer up too many opportunities for the team’s youngsters and all-in-all, it’s been a mixed year for the development of the future of the All Blacks.
Clarke, Jordan, Sotutu and Vaa’i had the most chances to press their claims – but in positions where the All Blacks aren’t exactly short of talent.
As the All Blacks season comes to a close with the Bledisloe Cup and Tri-Nations title in tow, we look back on how members of Ian Foster's squad fared over the course of the year. #AllBlacks #TriNations https://t.co/QusV97DhZb
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 7, 2020
With Brodie Retallick set to return from his sabbatical next year, New Zealand’s locking stocks are looking incredibly healthy. Vaa’i and his fellow youthful second-rowers will struggle to crack the NZ team next season as they’ll have to usurp Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett or Patrick Tuipulotu for a spot.
In the outside backs, Jordan and Clarke have both made a case for more permanent positions in the team but the All Blacks are by no means short of talented players to inject on the wings and at fullback. Their performances and continued development in 2020 have been great to see – but adding two more outside backs into New Zealand’s national stocks, no matter how talented they are, isn’t a game-changer for last year’s World Cup semi-finalists.
Sotutu, on the other hand, could offer a point of difference at No 8, with no obvious heir-apparent to Kieran Read – but it’s still not the All Blacks’ biggest problem area.
Instead, that’s a two-way tie between hooker and halfback. That’s not because the incumbents aren’t special – Aaron Smith, Codie Taylor and Dane Coles would all have claims to being the best in their position across the globe – it’s because there’s no obvious back-up plan for when these ageing stars finally call it quits.
The trio of Smith, TJ Perenara and Brad Weber, who are all 28 or older, were selected as the All Blacks’ three halfbacks for last year’s World Cup and they were again summoned to the squad for 2020.
While all three could technically still be good enough to feature at the 2023 World Cup in France, it’s difficult to imagine that they’d have the speed to keep up with the pacey halfbacks that are popping up across the globe.
Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi and Mitch Drummond have earned call-ups to the side in recent times but neither has come on in leaps and bounds in the last two years.
Drummond job-shares with Bryn Hall at the Crusaders while Tahuriorangi is Weber’s back-up at the Chiefs and will face stiff competition from Waikato’s Xavier Roe next season.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 29, 2020
Folau Fakatava was a stand-out for Hawke’s Bay during the Mitre 10 Cup and will again sit behind Smith at the Highlanders – but perhaps that’s the perfect training for a young man who could perform the same role at the international level.
Fakatava has the raw potential to play for the All Blacks and is perhaps a more abrasive character than Smith, but his core duties still require plenty of work-shopping.
The hooker situation is similar, with a rejuvenated Coles taking over the starting duties this year and Taylor being injected off the bench later in games.
Aumua, meanwhile, first played for the All Blacks in 2017 (two non-tests against the Barbarians and a French XV) and is still just 23 – but he desperately needs minutes under his belt. Even at Super Rugby level, he’s camped behind Coles at the Hurricanes and has sometimes struggled to make the match-day team.
It took Taylor four years of professional rugby before he cracked the All Blacks and started making a name for himself, so there’s still plenty of time for Aumua to assert himself – but 33-year-old old Coles may not have the legs to make another World Cup, which creates a bit of a problem for the All Blacks.
If Coles does retire before 2023, Foster will be forced to select two relatively inexperienced hookers in his squad, which emphasises the need for Aumua to get up to speed sooner rather than later.
Of course, the likes of Nathan Harris and Liam Coltman could play themselves back into contention for a national re-call next season, while you imagine that 32-year-old Ash Dixon could seamlessly slide into test football without needing too much time to acquaint himself with the rigours of the higher level.
Succession planning is well underway in the All Blacks camp, but the greatest success stories of 2020 weren’t in the positions that NZ are so desperate for talent to break through. With a full calendar planned for next year, Ian Foster will be hoping to integrate his youthful talent a bit more seamlessly than in this year’s disrupted season.
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