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Will the All Blacks XV favour development or depth?

By Tom Vinicombe
TJ Perenara and Cortez Ratima. (Photos by Getty Images)

Will the All Blacks XV be used as a vehicle for ensuring the next best options in New Zealand are ready for action should they be required for World Cup duty next year, or will Ian Foster see the nation’s second side as a means of assessing the next generation of talent?

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That’s the big question ahead of the upcoming two-game tour which will see the new high-performance side square off with Ireland A and the Barbarians in a month’s time.

Foster has already handed minutes to 41 players throughout the All Blacks’ international campaign to date, with a squad of 36 likely to be selected to travel north for matches against Japan, Wales, Scotland and England. That opening match in Tokyo will present a number of fringe players with an opportunity to stretch their legs in a black jersey but it’s likely that a consistent 23 will be rolled out over the final three matches of the season with an eye to next year’s World Cup in France.

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With so many men getting opportunities this year – albeit some only fleeting – it’s possible that Foster will look to the All Blacks XV to give younger talent a run on a higher stage than Super Rugby or the NPC, while also keeping current All Blacks who miss out on the end-of-year tour involved in some form.

The truth of the matter is that some of the young talent in New Zealand – men who could eventually become long-term All Blacks – are not yet the ‘next best’ players in the country. A man like Kurt Eklund was one of the top-performing hookers throughout the Blues’ strong Super Rugby Pacific campaign, but is it worth investing in a 30-year-old hooker when there are youngsters such as George Bell and Tyrone Thompson who look destined for greatness?

The All Blacks XV were originally set to play four games this year, with a match lined up against Canada and one other international side, but now with just a two-game schedule on the agenda, it’s likely that recently announced coach Leon MacDonald won’t be gifted a full 30-man squad. Instead, gaps in the roster could easily be plugged by the men who are on tour with the All Blacks but not required for Test duty on any given weekend. Regardless, close to 55 players will likely travel north following the NPC – and there’s a huge number of players in contention for spots.

Looking at the All Blacks XV, who are the men vying for a spot on the plane?

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Hooker will be a major focus for the selectors, with Dane Coles and potentially Codie Taylor both nearing the ends of their Test careers. Asafo Aumua has always been designated the next cab off the ranks and at 25 years of age, could still play a massive role over the next two World Cup cycles. Brodie McAlister (also 25) is perhaps the most ‘Test-ready’ player of New Zealand’s current rakes and would be a reliable option moving forward, but youngsters such as Bell, Thompson and Soane Vikena perhaps boast greater upsides to their games. Bell, at just 20, has shouldered a big workload for Canterbury this year and captained the New Zealand Under 20s to a successful home series earlier in the season and might be the man best poised to take over from Taylor, both at the Crusaders and in the national set-up.

The propping situation is not dissimilar; the All Blacks front-row was desperate for a refresh this year and injuries to Joe Moody, Ofa Tu’ungafasi and Nepo Laulala eventually paved the way for Ethan de Groot and Tyrel Lomax to string together a good run of relatively successful performances. While De Groot might not necessarily be the dynamic open-field player that the coaches have been searching for, Lomax has stood up in that area, and De Groot very much has time on his side, compared with 31-year-old Laulala.

The make-up of the All Blacks XV front-row will largely depend on who gets the nod for the top team, with Foster using nine props throughout the season to date. One of those men, Karl Tu’inukuafe, will be out of the picture, while Angus Ta’avao hasn’t been used since struggling at scrum-time against a formidable South African pack in Mbombela. Assuming the All Blacks go with seven props for their northern tour, it’s likely that Ta’avao will be the man to miss out – but is he worth carrying in the All Blacks XV, especially when there are a number of youngsters who need assessing?

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The likes of Alex Hodgman, Ollie Norris and Pouri Rakete-Stones all had big Super Rugby seasons and are worth a run against the Barbarians or the Irish Wolfhounds, while Jermaine Ainsley helped the Highlanders maintain high standards at the set-piece and Xavier Numia has been in good form for Wellington. Tamaiti Williams, meanwhile, could be the most promising prop in the country – whether on the loosehead or tighthead side of the scrum and his Crusaders teammate, Oli Jager, has also towelled up a few opposition throughout the season. Saula Ma’u is another who looks to have a bright future and will look to improve his national standing with a strong showing for the Highlanders next season.

There are many options in the second row but no clear-cut stand-outs. Tupou Vaa’i might be better served playing two competitive games for the All Blacks XV than holding tackle bags at training for the All Blacks and Foster should seriously consider giving the youngster a run for Japan before offloading him to the second team if he’s not going to actually give him worthwhile minutes on the end-of-year tour – which, based on the season to date, seems quite likely. Patrick Tuipulotu could also return to action after missing much of the international campaign through injury while Josh Dickson has been filling his role with the national side. Outside of current All Blacks, 26-year-old Quinten Strange has bounced back admirably for Tasman after a tough 18 months while Manaaki Selby-Rickit is also a possibility. Naitoa Ah Kuoi has been playing on the blindside flank for Bay of Plenty and that may well be where his future lies but his ability to cover the second row would make him a great utility option off the bench. Of the younger contingent, Zach Gallagher has stood out in his rare appearances for Canterbury this year and didn’t look overawed when given opportunities for the Crusaders, and could be the type of player to step into a role vacated by either Sam Whitelock or Brodie Retallick following next year’s World Cup campaign.

New Zealand’s loose forwards are unsurprisingly well-stocked, with Luke Jacobson looming as a potential captaincy option for the All Blacks XV. Add in the likes of Billy Harmon, Tom Robinson, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u and Pita Gus Sowakula and there are ample experienced options who could travel to Europe with the side. The youngsters who have been making waves this season include Sean Withy, Samipeni Finau and the Hurricanes trio of Brayden Iose, TK Howden and Caleb Delany, while Peter Lakai is perhaps one of the most impressive talents in the country at present. Still just 19 years of age, Lakai is worth a gamble simply to see what he’s capable of against some stronger opposition, having never played about NPC level.

If Ian Foster is looking for World Cup back-ups in the halves then he needs to go no further than Brad Weber and TJ Perenara, but the smarter option might see Folau Fakatava follow the already-mentioned path of Tupou Vaa’i, playing against Japan for the All Blacks and then getting two games under his belt for the All Blacks XV, with Weber travelling with the top squad. Other young halves such as Cortez Ratima, Noah Hotham and Cam Roigard all look to have big futures ahead of them.

As with Vaa’i and Fakatava, All Blacks backs including Stephen Perofeta, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Braydon Ennor would benefit more from clocking up regular minutes for the second side than simply treading water with the first team. Perofeta’s inclusion in the All Blacks XV could see Damian McKenzie make his Test return – but both those players will feature in Europe one way or another. Other five-eighths that will be in contention to play the Barbarians and Ireland A include Josh Ioane and Aidan Morgan, with the former more experienced but the latter boasting more potential (and six years Ioane’s junior). With either Perofeta or McKenzie in the side, the shorter odds lie with the younger option.

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If Jack Goodhue is deemed fit and available then he’ll surely be rushed into action for the All Blacks XV, with Foster likely still seeing the 27-year-old as a midfield option for the World Cup. Factor in Tuivasa-Sheck and Ennor, and the side could be well stocked if more proven performers are utilised. Others, such as Alex Nankivell, Billy Proctor, Bailyn Sullivan, Rameka Poihipi and the Umaga-Jensen twins could all come under consideration but a youngster like Riley Higgins would benefit hugely from such extra exposure to top-flight rugby. Higgins has showcased his class for Wellington this season and should be pushing the likes of Proctor, Sullivan and Peter Umaga-Jensen for a starting spot with the Hurricanes next year.

As always, there are a number of dangerous options the All Blacks XV could utilise in the outside backs. After having a storming game for the Maori All Blacks against Ireland earlier this year, Zarn Sullivan has been sidelined for much of the provincial season but would have been the perfect man to slot in at fullback. With him potentially out of the picture, Connor Garden-Bachop, Ruben Love, Josh Moorby, Shaun Stevenson, Etene Nanai-Seturo and even Tuivasa-Sheck might come under the spotlight but a youngster such as Waikato’s Tepaea Cook-Savage might be worth a run. On the wings, Mark Telea, AJ Lam, Emoni Narawa, Salesi Rayasi and Julian Savea all loom as possibilities, as well as George Bridgeshould the former All Black not have already signed an overseas contract.

Were it the beginning of an entirely new World Cup cycle, it’s highly likely that the All Blacks XV would include a significant number of young players who Ian Foster deemed possible national representatives in the longer-term, but not necessarily immediately ready for a Test call-up, even if injuries were to strike. With the World Cup set to kick off in less than a year’s time, however – and no guarantees who will be the head coach following France 2023 – Foster will likely look to a hybrid model for the first-ever All Blacks XV tour, and mix-and-match some young up-and-comers with men who might be needed for next season’s flagship tournament.

Possible 28-man All Blacks XV squad:

Hookers: Asafo Aumua, Brodie McAlister, George Bell
Props: Alex Hodgman, Ollie Norris, Tamaiti Williams, Oli Jager, Angus Ta’avao
Locks: Josh Dickson, Quinten Strange, Manaaki Selby-Rickit
Loose forwards: Luke Jacobson (c), Billy Harmon, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Pita Gus Sowakula, Peter Lakai
Halfbacks: TJ Perenara, Cortez Ratima
First fives: Aidan Morgan, Josh Ioane
Midfielders: Jack Goodhue/Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Alex Nankivell, Riley Higgins
Outside backs: Mark Telea, AJ Lam, Salesi Rayasi, Emoni Narawa, Connor Garden-Bachop

Players on loan from the All Blacks: Tupou Vaa’i, Folau Fakatava, Stephen Perofeta, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Braydon Ennor

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