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RUGBYPASS+ All Blacks craving fresh hooker blood

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All Blacks craving fresh hooker blood
1 month ago

If it weren’t already obvious heading into their first home Test of the Rugby Championship, the All Blacks are in desperate need of some new blood at hooker.

Starting rake Samisoni Taukei’aho was once again one of the best players on the field for New Zealand against Argentina in Christchurch, finding his target with all five of his lineout deliveries and regularly bashing his way through one or two would-be tacklers. He didn’t necessarily do anything to set the world alight but he was accurate and he was sturdy.

The same couldn’t be said for stalwart Codie Taylor, who joined the fray in the 45th minute and looked completely out of sorts. The experienced hooker sent his first throw right over the top of the lineout and his final delivery of the game – in the dying stages of the contest – was ruled not straight by referee Nika Amashukeli, effectively ending any chance the All Blacks had at stealing a late draw. Taylor also knocked the ball on out wide and generally struggled to have any significant positive impact on the match.

Codie Taylor had a rough day at the office off the bench against the Pumas. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Every player has their off days but in Taylor’s case, the 31-year-old has been on the slide since the beginning of last year and, were it not for the fact that he has 70 Test appearances under his belt, Taylor would not have earned a place in the All Blacks squad this season based on the form he’s shown over the past 12 months.

Taylor’s cameo off the bench wasn’t the worst we’ve seen from an All Blacks hooker this year, however. 35-year-old Dane Coles can take the cake for that with his inaccurate showing in Mbombela which thwarted any possibility of a New Zealand comeback against South Africa.

Both Taylor and Coles could at one point lay claim to being the best hooker in the world and have been amazing servants of the game in New Zealand. Coles earned himself a nomination for World Rugby Player of the Year in 2016 while Taylor’s form was so sublime the following season that he took over as the All Blacks’ first-choice rake. Five years on, however, and the two former stars are shadows of the players they once were. That’s natural – you can’t expect a player to be at the top of their game indefinitely and there’s always going to be a point where selectors have to cut ties with the men who have performed so admirably in the past.

The lack of focus on succession planning has been exacerbated with the poor run of results the All Blacks have experienced in the past 18 months, which has seen current coach Ian Foster effectively put all his eggs into one basket and focus on a core XV.

In years gone by, the All Blacks tended to focus as much on succession planning as they did on the here and now, slickly bedding young up-and-coming players into the mix without overwhelming them, but always ensuring they’d be ready to take on the top nations in the world if called upon. Winning, of course, was paramount – but it was clear that future-proofing was always on the mind.

That’s not been the case in recent times and the lack of focus on succession planning has been exacerbated with the poor run of results the All Blacks have experienced in the past 18 months, which has seen current coach Ian Foster effectively put all his eggs into one basket and focus on a core XV in the hope that the wins will eventually start piling up.

It was only against the Springboks in Mbombela this year that Samisoni Taukei’aho got his first start against one of the All Blacks’ traditional rivals. Despite the aforementioned middling form from Taylor last year – and Taukei’aho’s strong showings off the bench – he was the preferred starter throughout the Rugby Championship and was also handed the No 2 jersey against Wales and Ireland on the end-of-year tour. Dane Coles – who spent much of the season sidelined – was then given the start in the final game of the campaign against the French in Paris.

Further delaying the inevitable, Taylor started all three Tests in July, with Taukei’aho getting runs off the bench in the opening two fixtures before ceding his position to Coles. When Taukei’aho was finally given the start in South Africa, there was an understandable sense of relief among fans – but there was also some trepidation. Why, in what was perhaps the biggest Test of the year, was Taukei’aho finally being thrust into a starting role when he could’ve been eased into such an occasion with run-on appearances in the many games leading up to Mbombela?

Samisoni Taukie’aho was one of the All Blacks’ best in South Africa. (Photo by Lee Warren/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Taukei’aho, to his credit, did not disappoint – but the All Blacks are still left with a situation where they now have just one truly international-level hooker, and it’s not obvious if there’s anyone else in New Zealand who’s ready to join him.

Taylor and Coles are still both capable of putting out good performances but they can’t be relied on to do so and the misfires are only going to become more regular over the next 13 months between now and the 2023 Rugby World Cup. The only other hooker in NZ with Test experience is human wrecking ball Asafo Aumua but if reliability is what you’re looking for then Aumua is not your man – not yet, at least.

From 2012 until 2017, the All Blacks blooded one hooker a year on average, including Dane Coles, Nathan Harris, James Parsons, Codie Taylor, Liam Coltman and Asafo Aumua. Of that group, Harris and Parsons have since retired from the game while Coltman is now playing his rugby overseas.

Yes, there’s a smattering of promising youngsters around the country, including Soane Vikena, Tyrone Thompson and 20-year-old George Bell but none of that trio are likely to be ready for international rugby next year.

Taukei’aho, whose first appearance came against Fiji last season, is the sole debutant in the five years since. Further, Taukei’aho was only called into the All Blacks as injury cover for Aumua and then only made his debut when Coles also went down injured.

The failure to bring in new blood at hooker doesn’t fall solely on Foster, of course, it’s a systematic issue that’s prevalent in positions across the board.

Yes, there’s a smattering of promising youngsters around the country, including Soane Vikena, Tyrone Thompson and 20-year-old George Bell but none of that trio are likely to be ready for international rugby next year – and they might never make the step up. The likes of Kurt Eklund, Rhys Marshall and Brodie McAlister are all dependable operators at Super Rugby level – with McAlister perhaps the next cab off the ranks – but are they future (or, more pertinently, current) All Blacks?

With just seven Tests remaining in 2021, three Rugby Championship fixtures next year and perhaps one or two warm-up games ahead of the World Cup, there’s precious little time for Foster to get new talent up to speed but that doesn’t mean new blood isn’t necessary. While Taukei’aho may still lack international experience, he went from being left out of the national set-up to perhaps the best hooker in New Zealand in the space of just a few months last year and given the collective demises of Codie Taylor and Dane Coles, Foster may just have to take a punt on a man like Brodie McAlister, who might not set the world alight but still has four seasons of Super Rugby under his belt and can be relied upon to do his core duties without too many hitches.

Brodie McAlister might be the next cab off the ranks for the All Blacks at hooker. (Photo by Jono Searle/Getty Images)

Given Coles’ regular battle with injuries, there’s a chance the 35-year-old might not make the tournament even if he were in the form of his life and a last-minute scratching from France would leave the All Blacks in the precarious positon of needing to bring in an inexperienced hooker with little to no time to get them up to speed. If bringing in a new player now doesn’t quite work out, Foster can always recall one of his more experienced options for the showpiece tournament in 2023 – but the alternative is much more complicated.

The four fixtures the All Blacks XV will play at the end of the year will also prove invaluable for some of the younger rakes in NZ to get some much-needed game time against more physical opposition than they would have faced at home – including a likely showdown with a Springboks A side – but their time in the All Blacks might not come until 2024.

The All Blacks have found themselves in a bit of a hole and one of their most problematic positions is hooker. While Samisoni Taukei’aho’s recent performances should provide some relief that the No 2 jersey is in safe hands, the same can’t be said for the No 16 – and there’s no time for Ian Foster to waste when it comes to bringing in some fresh meat.

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