While it should come as no surprise, the confirmation that Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett will both depart New Zealand’s shores following the 2023 Rugby World Cup leaves the All Blacks in somewhat of a sticky situation.
The two have been almost ever-present selections in the national side since they made their debuts against Ireland in June 2012.
Since that series kicked off, the All Blacks have taken to the field for 141 Tests. 134 of those matches have featured either Smith or Barrett, with both of them involved in the vast majority of those clashes.
Every single game that New Zealand has played since 2012 against England, France, Australia, South Africa, Ireland or Wales has included at least one half of the experienced combo – but that’s obviously not going to be the case after France 2023.
Both Smith and Barrett have signed deals with Toyota Verblitz, the Japanese club where Steve Hansen acts as director of rugby and the likes of world champion Springboks Pieter-Steph du Toit and Willie le Roux currently call home.
While Barrett has only inked a one-year deal and could potentially make a return to NZ in the future, Smith has committed to the club for the long term which, according to New Zealand Rugby’s official announcement, “will likely mean 2023 will be his last season in New Zealand”.
But Smith and Barrett aren’t the only All Blacks likely heading to the Land of the Rising Sun next season.
Five New Zealand halves – Smith, Barrett, Mo’unga, Weber and Perenara – are likely all on the cusp of playing their final seasons for the All Blacks.
Shannon Frizell has already signed with Toshiba Brave Lupus while it wouldn’t surprise to see both Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock head east. Ardie Savea will also spend one season in Japan and Sam Cane has a sabbatical option he will likely exercise next year. Savea and Cane will presumably both return to the All Blacks fold after the League One campaign, but Frizell, Retallick and Whitelock will effectively be calling time on their Test careers. Perhaps more significant is the fact that first five-eight Richie Mo’unga will spend the next three seasons with Toshiba.
Halfbacks Brad Weber and TJ Perenara are also off-contract at the end of the year (and the former is rumoured to be heading to France).
All in all, five New Zealand halves – Smith, Barrett, Mo’unga, Weber and Perenara – are likely all on the cusp of playing their final seasons for the All Blacks, and it would take a bold man to suggest that NZ are adequately prepared for their departures.
The process to replace the quintet really only picked up any speed last year.
In the halfbacks category, 27-year-old Finlay Christie was given his first taste of Test rugby in 2021, picking up a debut in the opening match of the season against Tonga and making four further appearances throughout the year. Just one of those appearances was in the No 9 jersey, however, against the USA on the end-of-year tour.
All in all, the Blues scrumhalf managed under 200 minutes of action in his inaugural season in black.
2022 proved slightly more fruitful for Christie, who was effectively anointed the second-best halfback in the country by the All Blacks selectors when both Perenara and Weber were omitted from the national squad. Two starts and seven further appearances off the bench eventuated for Christie throughout the season but come the end of the year, he hadn’t necessarily proved to anyone that he was a better option than the two men who he pipped for spots at the beginning of the year. While Christie was warming the bench, Perenara and Smith were performing strongly for the likes of the Maori All Blacks and All Blacks XV and it would not come as a surprise if at least one of those two more experienced options travelled to France this year.
With potentially only one World Cup cycle left in him, it’s not like Christie has age on his side either.
Folau Fakatava was the other halfback to get a chance with the All Blacks in 2022 but his appearances were fleeting before injury robbed him of making any sort of impact on the end-of-year tour.
None of them are ready for the big leagues and anointing them as heirs-apparent to the likes of Smith and Barrett would be to do so based almost exclusively on hope, and not on any consistent evidence showcased on the park.
One position further out, Mo’unga and Barrett have dominated the No 10 jersey for the All Blacks in recent years, with Damian McKenzie the only other player to get an opportunity in the role since Ian Foster took over as head coach in 2020.
Like Mo’unga and Barrett, McKenzie’s current contract with NZR is set to expire at the end of the year and there are no guarantees he’ll hang around. In 2022, he spent the first half of the year playing for Tokyo Sungoliath and the diminutive firecracker was unsurprisingly a massive hit so a second stint in Japan could beckon.
With McKenzie unavailable for the first Tests of the season, Stephen Perofeta was picked by Foster as third-choice No 10 for the All Blacks but his chances on the field were few and far between; one start at fullback and two 30-second stints off the bench were all Perofeta had to show for a year of holding tackle bags. Greater opportunities at the top level could come his way if Blues coach Leon MacDonald decides to employ Perofeta at 10 and Beauden Barrett at fullback during the upcoming Super Rugby Pacific season instead of the other way round but as it stands, Perofeta is not ready to step into the shoes that Mo’unga and Barrett will leave vacant at the end of the year.
At both halfback and first five-eighth there are a number of youngsters coming through the ranks who appeal as possible future All Blacks.
In the former category, there’s a lot to like about Fakatava, Cortez Ratima, Cam Roigard and Noah Hotham while Fergus Burke, Rivez Reihana, Zarn Sullivan and Ruben Love could eventually break through the ceiling to cement themselves as long-term Test players. At present, however, none of them are ready for the big leagues and anointing them as heirs-apparent to the likes of Smith and Barrett would be to do so based almost exclusively on hope, and not on any consistent evidence showcased on the park.
Until now, it’s been somewhat possible to overlook the impending departure of experienced 9s and 10s to greener pastures overseas but it’s suddenly starting to feel very real.
Succession planning has always been the foundation for the All Blacks’ dominance of the world game but that dominance has fallen away in recent years – if not dissolved altogether – and so too has the conveyor belt of talent.
It’s not all doom and gloom, of course. There are always going to be young, talented players wishing for greater opportunities at all levels of the game and there certainly are some players who could stamp their mark in the coming months and years, but New Zealand fans could certainly be forgiven for feeling nervous about the post-Smith, post-Barrett era that’s rapidly approaching.
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