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FEATURE All Blacks pursue offshore stars to bolster experience deficit

All Blacks pursue offshore stars to bolster experience deficit
3 weeks ago

Whatever happens with the All Blacks this year, no-one will be able to say new coach Scott Robertson failed to do his due diligence ahead of the first Test against England.

Robertson has been tireless in his efforts to not only stay connected with eligible players in Japan such as Ardie Savea, Sam Cane and Beauden Barrett, but has also been working with New Zealand Rugby to see if a handful of other offshore players, mainly Richie Mo’unga and Shannon Frizell (he did try to persuade Sam Whitelock to return to New Zealand, too) can be persuaded to return home before their current contracts expire.

He’s also lobbied the NZR board to change the eligibility laws and the impression Robertson has left is that of a coach determined to pursue all avenues to get the best All Blacks team on the park.

It has become part and parcel of rugby life in New Zealand that there is a player exodus after World Cups. The volume of departures post-2023 would be no more significant than it was in 2019, but it is the concentrated positional expertise and experience which has been lost that may be causing Robertson an element of concern.

Scott Robertson
Robertson’s first year in charge will see New Zealand play 14 Tests from early July to late November (Photo Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Partly because of his sustained success with the Crusaders and partly because he was given the job through an unprecedented appointment process which saw him named as successor to Ian Foster six months before last year’s World Cup, Robertson is coming into the role carrying an unusually high burden of expectation.

Expectation is standard fare for any new All Blacks coach, but Robertson has captured the public imagination in a way few of his predecessors have and the narrative has built that he will somehow prove transformational after what was a relatively turbulent period under his predecessor.

The All Blacks open their 2024 season with two home Tests against a rejuvenated England and then one against Fiji in the USA – a series of games that will demand Robertson’s side hit the ground running.

When he was at the Crusaders he was a no-fear selector – constantly backing young players and promoting talent ahead of experience in individual cases where calls were tight.

A Rugby Championship campaign follows, starting with two home games against Argentina, then two Tests in South Africa before back-to-back fixtures against a possibly much-improved Wallabies. Their end-of-year tour features a stopover in Japan and then Tests against England, Ireland, France and Italy on successive weekends.

Given the need to deliver results quickly, it’s easy to understand why Robertson is eager to explore all his options in trying to secure every possible player and resource.

When he was at the Crusaders he was a no-fear selector – constantly backing young players and promoting talent ahead of experience in individual cases where calls were tight.

Peter Lakai
Hurricanes openside flanker Peter Lakai is one newcomer pushing hard for an All Blacks debut (Photo Phil Walter/Getty Images)

And no doubt he’ll be willing to load his All Blacks team with new players such as Xavier Numia, Peter Lakai, Cortez Ratima, Ruben Love and Billy Proctor – a point he all but confirmed when he spoke with media recently.

“We have got a lot of established All Blacks, a lot of guys coming back from the Rugby World Cup and a lot of guys who have been All Blacks before, available,” he said. “But you spend 80 per cent of your time on the 20 per cent of players who haven’t been All Blacks before.

“You see their current form and are they executing. You look at some of the local derbies, which have been great opportunities for us to see what they are like under pressure, to see their traits. We will use all these games right until the end of the season to make sure we make the right decisions.”

One of the areas of greatest vulnerability for New Zealand is lock, where they have a lack of depth and experience, compounded by the fact that Scott Barrett, their number one player in that position, has only managed a few games so far this year due to various injuries.

But in Test football, experience counts and the complexion of the All Blacks squad and how various players could be utilised would change dramatically if Mo’unga and Frizell were available, and had Whitelock decided to come home from France instead of retiring.

The All Blacks are going to be able to pick a strong group to play England, but they would be able to pick a squad with more depth, more experience and arguably more ability if Robertson was allowed to access even just two players who are currently not available due to the eligibility policy.

One of the areas of greatest vulnerability for New Zealand is lock, where they have a lack of depth and experience, compounded by the fact that Scott Barrett, their number one player in that position, has only managed a few games so far this year due to various injuries.

Shannon Frizell
Shannon Frizell’s return would be a major boost to Robertson’s back-row resources (Photo Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Josh Lord, the young Chiefs hopeful, has also been ruled out for eight weeks and so Robertson will be looking at an undercooked Barrett, an in-form Patrick Tuipulotu and Tupou Vai’i as his match-day locks for the England series.

That’s a reasonable trio with 120-plus caps between them, but one injury will leave the All Blacks scrambling. That’s why Robertson was keen on Whitelock coming home and why he would no doubt like the option, in the case of an injury crisis, to be able to call up Brodie Retallick, even if the Japan-based veteran only needed to play one Test.

Likewise, the All Blacks face a challenge in selecting a loose trio to play England with the depth of experience that Robertson would like. Savea will be available to play – Cane is injured – but history has shown that it takes players a little time to adjust when they return to New Zealand after a club season in Japan.

Frizell is New Zealand’s only seasoned and proven Test blindside and without him, the All Blacks will face the prospect of fielding the one-cap Finau, or potentially shifting Dalton Papali’i from his preferred openside.

If the loose trio had to be picked purely on Super Rugby form, Samipeni Finau would be at No 6, Peter Lakai at openside and Hoskins Sotutu at No 8. This would be an enormously talented trio, but one with only 15 caps between them – 14 of which belong to Sotutu.

And this is the crux of the issue facing Robertson. Being able to access just one loose forward currently offshore – in this case Frizell – would greatly enhance the team’s ability to field different combinations with the right balance of experience and ability.

Frizell is New Zealand’s only seasoned and proven Test blindside and without him, the All Blacks will face the prospect of fielding the one-cap Finau, or potentially shifting Dalton Papali’i from his preferred openside.

Cortez Ratima
The uncapped Cortez Ratima is expected to be in scrum-half contention and could partner fellow Chief Damian McKenzie (Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

The other options are Ethan Blackadder, who has barely played in the last 18 months, Akira Ioane, who still doesn’t convince as a Test player, or using Luke Jacobson there, even though he is a natural No 8.

When asked about Frizell, Robertson said: “He is obviously still at his peak, and he can still play great rugby. We have been monitoring him from afar and watching him over in Japan.

“Would we love to have him back? Of course we would. It gives us depth in the loose forwards, and we will see.”

Given Mo’unga’s value, and the fact he’s only just turned 30, it is entirely reasonable that Robertson wants to see if he can persuade his former Crusaders playmaker to give up his $2.2m a year contract.

It’s much the same story in the backs where the All Blacks have lost Aaron Smith to retirement and Cam Roigard to injury, so Robertson will be reluctant to field the in-form but uncapped Ratima at half-back with his club No 10, Damian McKenzie.

These two are the form Super Rugby playmakers but McKenzie has only played a handful of Tests at No 10 and having access to Mo’unga – such a calm and assured operator – would open so many selection possibilities for the All Blacks, while not leaving them short of experience or game management capabilities while they discover more about new players.

Given Mo’unga’s value, and the fact he’s only just turned 30, it is entirely reasonable that Robertson wants to see if he can persuade his former Crusaders playmaker to give up his $2.2m a year contract.

Which international coach wouldn’t try to do the same? Mo’unga, after all, has 56 caps and that sort of experience, game management and all-round ability in such a crucial position is exceptionally hard to replace.

Richie Mo'unga
Mo’unga has just helped Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo win the Japan Rugby League One title (Photo Koki Nagahama/Getty Images)

“It’s no secret New Zealand Rugby were sorry to see Richie leave at the time he did and we would like him back,” NZR head of professional rugby Chris Lendrum told the Rugby Direct podcast. “You can imagine we’ve been talking to Richie, and others, while they’re offshore.

“Plan A is to get him back on a full-time contract as soon as we can. That involves working with his agent.”

Robertson is doing precisely what he should be doing and trying to gain access to players currently off limits, but it’s a strategy that may not be loved by those aspiring to make the All Blacks from Super Rugby Pacific.

Everyone is going to have to get used to it and accept that if the All Blacks want to compete with the best sides in the world, they are going to have to continue to look beyond their own shores to do so.

As Hurricanes wing Kini Naholo told ZB radio talkback host Jason Pine: “Stephen Perofeta and McKenzie have been playing well this year. For me, as a player, I’d probably be annoyed, but it is great competition.

“New Zealand have always had that problem, over the years. They’ve always had some of the best five-eighths. It’s good competition, but you’d probably be a bit deflated knowing they’re trying to get Richie back.”

As much as this focus on offshore talent may not sit well with home-based players, this is going to be the reality while NZR continues to allow senior figures to enjoy one-season sabbatical deals with Japanese clubs.

Everyone is going to have to get used to it and accept that if the All Blacks want to compete with the best sides in the world, they are going to have to continue to look beyond their own shores to do so.

Comments

79 Comments
m
monty 22 days ago

Currently across the super franchises the forwards choices for Robertson is in the luxury of the competitions depth for selection . However same can’t be said regarding selection of the backs, especially the inside backs. I believe that’s where his dilemma will be. If he can’t get mouanga for the start then he should forget him and move on.

J
Jon 24 days ago

The new board will now be injected with people of Razor’s ingenuity and we can modernize the All Blacks eligibility criteria!

E
Easy_Duzz-it 24 days ago

🤣🤣 cry babies in the comments . I hope razor gets his boy mounga . It’ll be lovely to see all the haters swallow there words … doesn’t take a genius to know mounga will preform exceptionally well with a forward pack that actually goes forward and not back wards … watch the space .

G
Graham 24 days ago

Great news Scott Robertson and NZR are pursuing the avenue of getting Richie Mo’unga back from Japan. They are perfectly within their rights to do so.Richie is the best around still as he showed in last weeks Japanese Final for Brave Lupus.He was amazing for the Crusaders and at last years World Cup.

F
Forward pass 25 days ago

Why cant he shut up and do what all his predesessors have done. Select from NZ.

m
mitch 25 days ago

Don’t do it. Stay true to what’s brought success to NZ rugby.

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