Select Edition

Northern Northern
Southern Southern
Global Global
New Zealand New Zealand
France France

FEATURE All Blacks face mammoth decision on the left wing

All Blacks face mammoth decision on the left wing
1 year ago

Midway through last year, it seemed as if the All Blacks had at last found the back three they were looking for and had the configuration they would select through to the World Cup.

The breakthrough moment came, ironically enough, when a midfield injury crisis forced coach Ian Foster to shift regular fullback Jordie Barrett to his preferred role of second-five against the Wallabies at Eden Park.

That shift, resulted in brother Beauden being promoted from the bench to fullback, where he slotted into a back three alongside Caleb Clarke and Will Jordan.

And that was, or so everyone thought, going to be the All Blacks’ preferred back three for the next 12 months.

Barrett brought organisational skills, bravery under the high ball, quality communication and a booming kicking game.

Beauden Barrett All Blacks
Beauden Barrett, playing at fullback, issues instructions for the All Blacks. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

He would mentor his two young wings – the lightning-quick Jordan whose ability to get off his flank and pop up in unusual places was uncanny, and the powerful Clarke, whose raw power and speed provoked comparisons with the great Jonah Lomu.

It was a back three deemed to have everything. But then Jordan couldn’t tour Europe at the end of the year due to injury.

Clarke, despite remaining a first choice, started to look defensively vulnerable and was prone to being caught out of position. It also began to feel like he missed a number of critical one-on-one tackles and by the end of the year, there was no longer that same certainty about who the All Blacks should be picking in their back three.

That uncertainty has intensified during Super Rugby. Clarke has continued to show signs of defensively vulnerability and Jordan has only been back in action for a month.

Barrett’s form, mostly at No 10 for the Blues, has been so-so at best, although there are signs he’s starting to trend in the right direction, and if the All Blacks had to pick a back three based purely on form, it would probably see Shaun Stevenson of the Chiefs at fullback, Leicester Fainga’anuku on the left wing and Mark Telea on the right.

Telea, who impressed when he made his debut last year against Scotland, has been the most consistent and dynamic right wing in Super Rugby Pacific.

But the All Blacks don’t ever pick purely on form; they always consider what players have previously done in the Test arena.

So, if we combine historic achievement with current form, Beauden Barrett is going to be at fullback for the All Blacks at the World Cup.

He brings so much to the table – experience, solid defence, the ability to play first-receiver, he’s a goal-kicker and still, he’s capable of pulling off the individually outrageous.

It’s the question of who will find themselves on the wings that is the harder one to answer.

Telea, who impressed when he made his debut last year against Scotland, has been the most consistent and dynamic right wing in Super Rugby Pacific.

He’s an intriguing player, as at 99kg, he doesn’t meet the criteria to be classified as a power wing, and yet he plays like one. He scored four tries for the Blues in the penultimate round-robin match against the Hurricanes, notably destroying the much larger Salesi Rayasi.

Mark Telea of the Blues is tackled during the round 14 Super Rugby Pacific match between Blues and Hurricanes. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

“He’s on fire,” said Blues coach Leon MacDonald after the game. “Close to the line, in the middle of the field, or wherever he decides to pop up, that’s his point of difference. He’s all over the place. You can’t get away from him and he’s always looking for opportunities.

“Whether he’s off the back of a ruck, or inside, outside 10 or on the edge, he’s hungry to get his hands on the ball and dangerous. He was fantastic.”

Telea is not only beating defenders with a combination of power and footwork, he’s scoring tries, creating tries and maybe most importantly, he’s stopping tries.

As Hurricanes coach Jason Holland, who will be joining the All Blacks next year, said of Telea: “I think what he’s doing defensively too is just as good as what you’re seeing with him scoring tries. He’s definitely a hard man to defend, but it’s possible.”

As well as Telea has played and as much potential as he obviously has, to put him in the All Blacks No 14 jersey would most likely mean leaving Jordan out of the team. Which would be a huge call, as Jordan, when he’s match-fit and confident, is a stunning player.

While it’s possible the All Blacks could pick Telea on one wing and Jordan on the other, there’s a sense that Foster would like undeniable power in one of his wings.

He has scored 21 tries in 21 tests, some of which have been spectacular. He’s an X-factor player who has frequently changed the nature of test matches by doing the impossible.

Like Telea, he’s brilliant at getting off his wing and timing his strike and while it’s possible the All Blacks could pick Telea on one wing and Jordan on the other, there’s a sense that Foster would like undeniable power in one of his wings.

Or in other words, he’s probably thinking he’ll pick either Telea or Jordan on the right wing and either Clarke or Fainga’anuku on the left.

Many would consider this a no-brainer – it has to be Fainga’anuku, who has been sensational all year, producing line bust after line bust and big hit after big hit.

There has been much more to his game this year, too, something he acknowledged he’s been working on since he first arrived at the Crusaders: “I had to spread my wings and get away from the running back into a wide receiver,” he said.

Leicester Fainga'anuku Crusaders
Leicester Fainga’anuku shows off his athleticism with a score for the Crusaders. (Photo by Peter Meecham/Getty Images)

“I had to really spread my game and show that there is no other winger like me at the moment.

“I knew one of my assets was obviously a big, powerful winger. It’s easy to rely on that every week, but the last five years it’s been about growing my game and seeing what other wings in New Zealand don’t have, and that changed my mentality.”

But what will be preying on Foster’s mind is that Fainga’anuku looked troubled by the pace and intensity of Test rugby when he played against Ireland last year and he’s also leaving New Zealand to join Toulon after the World Cup.

The fact Fainga’anuku is leaving won’t count against him per se, but if it comes down to a straight choice between him and Clarke – they are both young, and bring similar skills to the table, but one is committed to staying in New Zealand – then the Blues man may be preferred.

The thing with Clarke, though, is that his game is inconsistent. He’s a powerful runner and he’s shown great aptitude at retrieving kick-offs this year. But too often he’s quiet on attack and as mentioned, there are concerns about his defensive reading.

In 2011, in what many saw as a selection borne of desperation, Richard Kahui, a specialist centre was thrown into the No 11 shirt. It was a risk that paid off amazingly well as Kahui was brilliant in the outside backs.

What makes this whole uncertainty about who to pick on the wings, is that it continues what has become something of a peculiar All Blacks thing.

Whether it has been by design, or forced by circumstance, the All Blacks have developed a habit of coming into World Cup years with uncertainty about whom they are going to select in their back three.

In 1995, 2003, 2011, 2015 and 2019 the All Blacks arrived at the World Cup with an almost totally unknown force on one of their wings.

In 1995, it was of course Jonah Lomu who they unleashed on the world. He’d played two Tests in 1994, but the then barely 19-year-old hardly registered in the series against France, primarily because he had little idea what he was doing.

In 2003, it was 20-year-old Joe Rokocoko who was the new man in the All Blacks back three.

Richard Kahui impressed on the wing for the All Blacks in 2011. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

In 2011, in what many saw as a selection borne of desperation, Richard Kahui, a specialist centre was thrown into the No 11 shirt. It was a risk that paid off amazingly well as Kahui was brilliant in the outside backs.

In 2015 Nehe Milner-Skudder was picked by the All Blacks after impressing for the Hurricanes in his rookie Super Rugby campaign.

And in 2019, the All Backs had two great wings in Ben Smith and Rieko Ioane, who had been first-choice picks since 2017 (Smith since 2013). But in the run-up to the tournament, Ioane lost his form and Smith his confidence and the All Blacks pulled off a major surprise by picking George Bridge and Sevu Reece in the opening game of the tournament against South Africa.

Surprise wing choices have been hit-and-miss for the All Blacks. They won in 2011 and 2015 with an unknown quantity on the wing, but it certainly didn’t work in 2019, with former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen retrospectively suggesting he would pick Smith if he was given his time again.

Springing a shock on the wing has not always worked for the All Blacks, but there is no doubt they will be tempted to do it again at this tournament given the quality of the teams they are likely to be facing.

USER NOTICE:

As part of a series of planned improvements, we will need you to reset your RugbyPass password from 22/06/24 to continue commenting on articles.

You don’t need to change anything until that time.

Thank you,

Comments

12 Comments
G
G 415 days ago

"Clarke also began to feel like he missed a number of critical one-on-one tackles"...

not feel, he missed them and tries were scored

m
mikejjules 415 days ago

While both good players neither bridge or Reece should have been there. There are a number of quality World class wings above them in NZ. Telea has to be a starter in the opener. If he performs he's got to stay there for the duration.
Jordan and Barrett can share 15, perhaps Barrett as a sub but Jordan will have to front defensively.
But Stevenson needs to be given a chance to show his wares, if he clicks he needs to be given the 15 shirt

e
edward 416 days ago

Jordan has to play 15 leaving Telea and Stevenson on the wings and BB and Fainganuku off the bench

A
Andrew 416 days ago

An entire article on NZ wing choices without mentioning Emoni Narawa or Stevenson? Are we in some parallel universe?

Load More Comments

Join free and tell us what you really think!

Sign up for free
Search