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Why there won't be any additions to the All Blacks hooking ranks this year

By Tom Vinicombe
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Ian Foster has understandably retained the experienced duo of Codie Taylor and Dane Coles in the All Blacks set-up since taking over from Steve Hansen in 2020 but now, less than 18 months out from the next World Cup, those two wizened figures will seriously come under the microscope.

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Thanks to the All Blacks’ extended season away from home last year, Foster was able to use four different hookers throughout the test campaign.

On one end of the experience spectrum, you had 31-year-old Taylor and 35-year-old Coles, who have amassed almost 150 test caps between them. On the other two 24-year-olds who had yet to start a test match, Asafo Aumua and Samisoni Taukei’aho.

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What the All Blacks squad could look like halfway through Super Rugby Pacific.
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What the All Blacks squad could look like halfway through Super Rugby Pacific.

Injuries meant Coles was only on deck for the first and final tests of the campaign so despite the Wellingtonian seemingly getting his nose in front of Taylor as the first-choice No 2 during the condensed 2020 season, it was Taylor who finished 2021 with far and away the most test starts to his name, accumulating nine throughout the year. Taukei’aho, who was only brought into the squad following Coles’ early-season injury, emerged as the clear back-up, making eight appearances off the bench – more than the other three hookers combined.

Despite Taylor’s continual selection as the starting rake, however, the Crusader was never at his best throughout the year. While his industry remained high, his effectiveness was somewhat hampered in all aspects of the game. His lineout accuracy wasn’t at its best, his dynamic ball-running – for so long a hallmark of his game – was nowhere to be seen, and his hands let him down on more than one occasion, sometimes in especially costly situations such as in the second test against South Africa when a simple drop from Taylor handed the Springboks the territory they needed for their first try of the match.

It would be needlessly hasty to immediately attribute Taylor’s lack of form last year to his age and suggest he’s now over the hill. 2021 was an incredibly long and disrupted season and there were limited All Blacks who covered themselves in glory, despite a relatively successful win rate throughout the year.

On the other hand, however, it would also be unwise to brush the events of 2021 aside.

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Should Taylor travel to France with the All Blacks for next year’s Rugby World Cup, he’ll be 32.

South Africa’s two primary hookers at the 2019 tournament, Bongi Mbonambi and Malcolm Marx were 28 and 25.

In 2015, the two rakes used by the All Blacks throughout the knockout stages of the World Cup, Coles and Mealamu, were 28 and 36.

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Between 2003 and 2011, the youngest hooker used by a winning side in a World Cup final was 23 (Bismark du Plessis in 2007) and the oldest was 36 (Dorian West). Notably, however, from 2003 to 2019, Mealamu has been the only hooker over the age of 30 to start in a final.

All signs indicate that Taylor won’t be wearing the No 2 jersey in France next year for the All Blacks come the sudden death stages of the tournament – and it would be a major surprise (and in some ways, an indictment on the development pathways in New Zealand at present) if both he and Coles make the travelling squad.

While Coles hasn’t even featured in this year’s Super Rugby Pacific season yet, Taylor hasn’t exactly kicked on after the disappointment of last season. That being said, the trend over the last few years has seen senior All Blacks hit their straps around the midway point of Super Rugby then fade as the year progresses – so perhaps Taylor’s underwhelming form to date actually bodes well for the rest of the season.

Around the rest of the country, Taukei’aho has been quietly ticking away for the Chiefs and Aumua has been shouldering a heavy load for the Hurricanes (but will now spend three weeks on the sidelines following a dangerous tackle over the weekend. Former All Black Liam Coltman has been the primary No 2 for the Highlanders while it’s Blues rake Kurt Eklund who’s been winning the most plaudits – though that’s primarily thanks to his impressive try-scoring efforts.

Eklund, however, has been one of the Blues’ best performers this year – even if you ignore the six tries he’s picked up for his troubles – and does compare favourably in many facets with the rest of the hookers around the country.

On the defensive side of things, Eklund is averaging nine tackles per game – the most of any hooker in the country, alongside James O’Reilly and Brodie McAlister. The fact that all seven of Eklund’s appearances have been in the run-on side helps his numbers, but bench players often try and impose themselves by taking on defensive duties once they enter the fray and we do often see reserve rakes come on with 20 to 30 minutes left in a match so the numbers aren’t significantly misleading by any stretch of the imagination.

While Taylor’s eight tacklers per match sit right below Eklund on the ladder, Taukei’aho and Aumua lag behind a fair way, averaging five and six tackles per match, respectively.

At the breakdown, Eklund also excels, hitting 14 defensive rucks per match (one short of the 100 mark for the season). Only the Crusaders duo of Taylor and McAlister pip Eklund in this area, while Coltman (14) and Aumua (11) aren’t far off the pace either. Taukei’aho’s five per match, meanwhile, is well down the pecking order. Importantly, Eklund is also getting to the breakdown first more than any other hooker in the country.

On the defence, Eklund is the most aggressive in the country when it comes to contesting opposition ball, averaging six per game – twice as many as All Blacks Taukei’aho, Coltman, Aumua and Taylor, who collectively occupy second on the number of defensive breakdowns hit. Unsurprisingly, Eklund has earned the most turnovers this season of NZ’s rakes (but has also conceded the most penalties), with five to his name. Coltman and young Chiefs tyro Tyrone Thompson have both earned four for their franchises.

Eklund is the kind of hooker that could be dropped into the national squad and probably wouldn’t let anyone down – although at 30 years of age, that’s a very unlikely scenario.

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While the All Blacks selectors undoubtedly love to see the hookers around the country getting through plenty of industry, it’s difficult to envisage Foster and co opting for a No 2 who isn’t a dynamic ball-carrier. Coles, Taylor, Aumua and Taukei’aho were all elevated into the national side based on their prowess with the ball in hand, and that’s the one area where Eklund is certainly less effective than his contemporaries.

Eklund averages less than one post-contact metre gained per carry whereas Taylor, Aumua and Taukei’aho are all sitting around the 2.5 metres mark. Thompson – who has had four appearances off the bench for the Chiefs – averages 3.77 post-contact metres per carry.

Taukei’aho is also the best hooker in the country at getting over the gain-line (and in the top five players in Super Rugby Pacific overall) – around 36 per cent of the time – whereas Eklund’s 11 per cent puts him at the bottom of the rankings.

If it weren’t for the fact that the All Blacks have really struggled to exert their physicality over their opposition in recent years, Eklund could be the exact kind of player that would be incredibly handy to have on deck but given the team’s issues against the likes of England, Ireland, France and South Africa, they will inevitably opt for the bigger men like Taukei’aho and Aumua. Even if they’re not hitting as many rucks of making as many tackles as someone like Eklund, their strength is irrefutable.

Taylor’s gain-line statistics for the Crusaders this season lie halfway between Eklund, and the duo of Taukei’aho and Aumua. In fact, that’s generally the spot Taylor occupies in most facets of his game at present. He’s a busy defender, always willing to put his hand up to carry the ball, and never shies away from hitting the breakdown and while he’s perhaps not quite up to his usual standards with the ball in hand, he’s still no slouch. Particularly in the Crusaders’ most recent fixture against the Blues – the game this season that’s been most similar to a test match – Taylor looked to be hitting his straps, with Taylor accruing the most post-contact metres of any forward on the park

It’s true that Taylor’s lineout work has been well below par this season, with he and Aumua making the most errors of New Zealand’s rakes, but it would be difficult to pin that on his age and Foster and the All Blacks coaches will be confident they can iron out the kinks that have suddenly appeared in his game.

With the World Cup set to kick off in September next year, now is the time to work either Samisoni Taukei’aho or Asafo Aumua into a starting role. Unlike with the props, those two young hookers have both already served a solid apprenticeship with the All Blacks and should be able to hit the ground running in 2022.

History indicates that Codie Taylor – the man who’s been such an important member of New Zealand’s forward pack in years gone by – likely won’t still be in a position to start in the crucial matches at next year’s tournament but either he or Dane Coles will still be an important squad member come France 2023.

Possible hookers for All Blacks July squad: Codie Taylor, Samisoni Taukei’aho, Asafo Aumua

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