Who will wear the coveted No 11 jersey when the All Blacks kick off their international campaign?
Jonah Lomu made the All Blacks No 11 jersey famous due to his incredible performances at the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
While the role of a left wing has evolved over the past two decades, the ability to bust tackles and make line breaks is still held in the highest regard and it’s those attributes that have made the likes of Joe Rokocoko, Julian Savea and Rieko Ioane so successful for New Zealand.
Heading into the 2021 test season, it’s anyone’s guess who will slot in on the left wing, with Caleb Clarke putting his career on hold to join the New Zealand sevens team in the quest for Olympics gold.
George Bridge wore the No 11 at the Rugby World Cup and started 2020 as the incumbent but spent most of the year on the sidelines through injury.
While Bridge made a successful return for the Crusaders in the latter stages of Super Rugby Aotearoa, he’s again under an injury cloud and there’s a very real chance he won’t feature again before the international season kicks off.
Speaking on the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, Super Rugby centurions Bryn Hall and James Parsons have assessed the merits of the men who are most likely to don the All Blacks’ No 11 jersey for the coming campaign.
“I think George Bridge has to be there,” said Hall of his Crusaders teammate. “He’s the incumbent with Caleb Clarke being away and with George’s performances when he was back, before his injury, he was playing some really good footy and the All Blacks know what they’re going to get with George. He’s a proven performer.”
“[Leicester’s] back on the wing, he’s played a lot of wing and then he’s played a lot of centre this year for us. We’ve talked about him previously on the pod, with him being able to have that double role around winger and midfielder, which could be massive in a team selection.
“The one thing that I do like about Nareki is he’s probably the best left-foot kicking option in New Zealand in that left wing spot. I think he’s better than George Bridge and Leicester when it comes to that kicking. He does a lot with it for the Highlanders, it gets them out really well in the exit zones, so I think that’s one of his main differences.
“And then Rayasi, if you’re talking around a guy that one-on-one can beat you and poses an X-factor and especially at the next level, he’s one guy that can do that. I think one thing for him that I’d like to see a little bit more is just his work rate off the ball and getting second touches and holding onto that ball and really respecting it. He’s one guy that’s been playing bloody well for the Hurricanes.”
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Parsons further suggested that Rayasi, the man who topped the 2020 Mitre 10 Cup scoring charts and was nominated for provincial player of the season, also possesses a strong left boot – an attribute that helps him and Nareki stand out from their contemporaries.
“The Hurricanes use him really effectively, he’s got a huge boot,” Parsons said. “I really like it from the sense of exiting. It means you can have a lick of attack and if they bring the winger up and the fullback comes up and there’s space in the backfield, they’ve got the big boot to take advantage of it.
“That’s what I like, it gives you the ability to have a look at and still get you out of your exit zone with a kick and if they don’t, if they stay back in the backfield, beauty, we’ll run, we’ll just take the space and then we’re playing footy. That’s the reason I like it. I like how the Canes do that. Salesi’s great at making those decisions.”
Halfback Hall also suggested that when you’re defending a scrum and you know your opposition have a left foot kicker at their disposal, it can force the defence to hold off on spreading out across the park, potentially opening up space for the some well-placed kicks.
“If it’s a left-hand side scrum and you’ve got a 15-metre blind, what that does in the backfield with having a left winger with a left foot, it just holds you a little bit more,” he explained. “For a 9 or the backfield, if you’re a fullback or the openside winger, it checks you a little bit … It’s pretty hard to defend when you’ve got an out and out left-foot kicking winger.
Parsons also put forward one other left-field suggestion for the left wing spot, nominating Crusaders No 14 Sevu Reece.
Reece notched up seven appearances for the All Blacks in his debut season in 2019, starting all of those matches on the right wing. Last year, however, he hit a second-season slump and made just one further appearance for New Zealand.
His form for the Crusaders has improved as the season has progressed and he’s now arguably the best-performing win in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman – but a shift to the left could pave the way for greater minutes for the All Blacks this year.
“I don’t think he’d look out of place on the left … It’s that power winger spot and I think he’s really powerful but I also think he has the work rate of that right wing. He’s got a high work rate.
“Remember when Jackson Garden-Bachop got that intercept against you guys, Bryn, and he came from the other side of the field and he was on the ground and he chased him down and he stopped that? That was a crucial moment in the game. So he’s got the work rate, he’s got the power and he’s good under the high ball. There’s a lot of aspects to his game that actually suits that blindside wing spot so I think he has to be considered as well.”
With Beuaden Barrett, Jordie Barrett and Damian McKenzie all more than capable of playing at fullback, there will be huge competition for the All Blacks’ wing spots – and the country’s best and brightest are all putting their hands up for selection.
When New Zealand run out against Tonga in their opening test of the year, however, who will don the No 11 jersey is anyone’s guess at this stage.
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