All Blacks squad: The winners and losers
OPINION: The first All Blacks squad of the year has been named for next month’s Test series against Tonga and Fiji, and there is no shortage of talking points about the side, writes Alex McLeod.
With head coach Ian Foster under pressure to bounce back from an underwhelming campaign last year, he has opted to bring in five uncapped players, including four newbies.
He has also recalled a few players who have missed out in recent seasons, dropped numerous others were involved last year and overlooked some who many pundits projected to make the cut.
With all that in mind, here are the winners and losers of Foster’s first All Blacks squad of 2021.
Emulating his father and former All Blacks captain Todd, Ethan Blackadder has been named in the national squad for the first time on the back of a standout season for the Crusaders.
An uncompromising loose forward who was at the forefront of everything for Scott Robertson’s men this year, All Blacks selection is deserved reward for the 26-year-old, who could well get a fair bit of game time against Tonga and Fiji next month.
Mostly used at blindside flank by the Crusaders, expect Blackadder to go head-to-head with Shannon Frizell for a place in the starting line-up.
He’s been on the Kiwi Super Rugby scene for quite some time now, but it wasn’t until last year’s edition of Super Rugby Aotearoa that Finlay Christie really burst into life.
Restricted mostly to cameo appearances for the Chiefs and Hurricanes between 2017 and 2019, the Scottish-born scrumhalf moved to the Blues last year and hasn’t looked back after producing quality performance after quality performance.
From a gymnastics background, Christie has undoubtedly benefitted from the contractual technicality that has made TJ Perenara ineligible for this squad, but his efforts to outshine his competitors for the third scrumhalf spot must be congratulated.
Arguably the biggest bolter of this squad, Quinn Tupaea is in line for an All Blacks debut at the age of just 22.
Not many would have foreseen this selection, but injuries to Anton Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue, as well as the departure of Ngani Laumape, has allowed Tupaea to force his way into the squad as a damaging ball-carrying midfielder.
Some may say he is too raw of a prospect to be playing Test rugby at this stage of his career, but it could also do a world of good for his development as he looks to realise the potential everyone first saw during his 1st XV days at Hamilton Boys’ High School.
— rugby365.com (@rugby365com) June 21, 2021
Ethan de Groot
The selection of Ethan de Groot is another a lot of people might not have seen coming, but anyone who has watched the Highlanders this year knows the damage he can inflict on his opponents.
Standing at 1.90m and 122kg, the 22-year-old is a behemoth of a man and is still incredibly young for a prop, but he put his enormous frame to good use throughout the Super Rugby season to impress in the Aotearoa and Trans-Tasman competitions.
Having already gotten the better of many older veterans at scrum time this year, De Groot has also stood out as a hard-working defender and powerful ball-carrier, which has been enough to make him Southland’s first All Black since Lima Sopoaga.
A surprise inclusion in last year’s All Blacks squad for the Tri-Nations, Crusaders prop George Bower has returned to the fray after failing to earn a Test debut in Australia.
The 29-year-old instead spent all of his time across the Tasman soaking up knowledge and experience, which he has put to good use as he’s stepped up well to fill the void of the injured Joe Moody for the Super Rugby Aotearoa champions.
Coming into the Super Rugby season six kilograms heavier than he was last year, Bower’s size should also serve him well in international rugby, meaning a long-awaited Test debut can’t be too far away.
After four long years of sitting on the periphery of the All Blacks squad, Crusaders vice-captain David Havili has finally returned to the national set-up.
The 26-year-old utility back made his test debut during the 2017 Rugby Championship and played in a total of three Tests that year, but hadn’t been included since as a raft of other stars ranked ahead of him in the national pecking order.
However, a shift from fullback to inside centre this year has allowed Havili to flourish to the point where he could no longer be ignored by the All Blacks, and with an opening in the national side’s midfield, don’t be surprised to see him start next month.
— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) June 22, 2021
Two years after having his World Cup dream cruelly crushed by a string of concussion problems that prevented him from playing for the All Blacks last year, Luke Jacobson is finally fit and ready for action in Test rugby once again.
The powerhouse Chiefs loose forward was a standout when he took Super Rugby by storm in 2019 and was tipped for an illustrious All Blacks career as he went on to win two Test caps and was included in that year’s World Cup squad.
Concussion forced him out of the tournament in the opening week and he wasn’t sighted in the All Blacks camp last year, but a return to his powerful best this year has enabled Jacobson to return to the national squad to show his credentials off once again.
Injuries and a drop in form saw Angus Ta’avao miss out on All Blacks selection last year after he was heavily involved in the national side throughout 2018 and 2019.
That included multiple appearances at the 2019 World Cup in Japan, but last year, the 31-year-old was deemed surplus to requirements as he was instead obliged to turn out for Auckland at provincial level.
It’s perhaps indicative, then, of his strong mindset that Ta’avao has been able to force his way back into Foster’s squad with some compelling displays for the Chiefs, which came just at the right time given injuries to frontline props.
Credit has to be given to rising Crusaders star Braydon Ennor for his inclusion in Foster’s newly-announced squad after only recently returning from a knee injury that kept him sidelined for nine months.
A ruptured ACL in last year’s North v South game ruled the one-Test midfielder out of contention for any All Blacks matches last year, and he has only had a handful of opportunities with the Crusaders to state his case for a re-call.
Ennor has done that, though, as he’s shown off his defensive power and ball-running prowess to win a place in the All Blacks with Lienert-Brown, Goodhue and Laumape all either injured or unavailable.
Two years after his last Test for the All Blacks in the 2019 World Cup bronze final, Brodie Retallick is back in New Zealand and set to play for the national side once more.
Following that World Cup, Retallick departed for an 18-month sabbatical with Japanese Top League club Kobelco Steelers in a deal that made him ineligible for All Blacks selection throughout all of last year.
That handed the All Blacks the chance to blood Tupou Vaa’i in the Test arena, but now he, and all the other locks, have a challenge on their hands to win game time with a slimmed-down Retallick now back in the selection mix.
Considered by most punters to be New Zealand’s best midfielder, Anton Lienert-Brown would never normally be considered a ‘winner’ whenever an All Blacks squad announcement is made.
Instead, the 49-cap veteran is expected to be included in the national set-up, but surgery on an elbow put him in doubt for next month’s Test series as he could miss the opening two Tests.
However, he has been included by Foster, which indicates not only his value to the squad, but also that he should be fit and firing to feature in at least one of the three Tests, which will be of significant benefit for the All Blacks.
🎥 BTS at the All Blacks Experience for the 2021 Steinlager Series squad naming pic.twitter.com/qKgmqkyswo
— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) June 22, 2021
One of last year’s biggest movers after winning his first four All Blacks Tests in his seventh year of professional rugby in New Zealand. Alex Hodgman appears to have regressed after missing out on this squad.
Impressing hugely during last year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign with the Blues through his tireless defensive work, scrummaging ability and solid ball-carrying, the 27-year-old fell off the wagon a little bit this year.
Not catching the eye as much as he did last season, Hodgman wasn’t helped by a red card suspension towards the end of Super Rugby Aotearoa, which helped De Groot and Bower surpass him in the national pecking order of loosehead props.
Another who starred in last year’s Super Rugby campaign, Cullen Grace was included in the 2020 All Blacks side after his stellar work for the Crusaders, where he established himself as a hard-hitting defender and reliable line-out option.
A Test debut ensued in November, when he got two minutes off the bench against the Wallabies in New Zealand’s 22-24 defeat in Brisbane, but that brief cameo is all Grace will have to his name for the time being after missing the cut this time round.
Despite rapid improvements in his ball-carrying game at No.8 as the Super Rugby season wore on, Grace’s slow start to the season has cost him his place in the All Blacks, meaning he’ll have a season with Canterbury to work on himself.
He was always going to be at long odds to make the squad considering the depth of talent evident in New Zealand’s loose forward stocks, but Du’Plessis Kirifi will likely be disappointed to miss out on selection given what happened last year.
An energetic flank for the Hurricanes and Wellington, Kirifi was called into the national squad for the 2020 Tri-Nations, although a Test debut eluded him.
While he continues to impress with his work rate, Kirifi is going to have to work even harder if he wants to pull on the black jersey as New Zealand’s congested loose forward talent pool has seen the 24-year-old drop out of the national side.
Like Kirifi, Mitchell Dunshea was a long shot to make the All Blacks this time round, especially with Retallick available for selection again and New Zealand’s five top locks all fit.
However, given the fact Dunshea was called into Foster’s squad last year, in similar circumstances to Kirifi, missing out on the national set-up will bring disappointment for the 25-year-old, who didn’t earn a Test debut last year.
Perhaps that’s the price one pays for being a lock at the Crusaders, where the likes of Scott Barrett and Sam Whitelock dominate the starting second row, but Dunshea will no doubt be working to improve his game during this year’s NPC.
Called into the All Blacks as injury cover last year, Peter Umaga-Jensen went on to win his first Test cap off the bench in the second Bledisloe Cup Test against the Wallabies in Auckland last year.
His first showing in international rugby was considered by many to be good reward for the outstanding rugby he had played for the Hurricanes in that year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa, but the 23-year-old hasn’t reproduced such form this season.
Struggling for minutes in Wellington, Umaga-Jensen often found himself playing second-fiddle to Billy Proctor, which has led to him dropping out of the All Blacks squad, for the time being at least.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for Quinten Strange given injury denied him a Test debut shortly after he was named in the All Blacks squad for the first time in his career.
Instead, Dunshea was taken to Australia for the Tri-Nations series, and while he didn’t win a Test cap either, it must have felt like a missed opportunity for Strange to prove his worth to the national selectors.
The 24-year-old’s misfortune continued into this season as Whitelock, Barrett and Dunshea were commonly used in the Crusaders’ matchday squad, leaving Strange plenty of work to do to climb the ranks again while with Tasman in the NPC.
Arguably the biggest omission of the lot, barnstorming Crusaders utility back Leicester Fainga’anuku was tipped by an array of fans to make the All Blacks for the first time due to his performance for the Christchurch-based side.
Capable of playing on the wing or in the midfield, Fainga’anuku’s versatility was also seen as an advantage for his selection chances, but it wasn’t to be for the 21-year-old, whose defensive frailties might have cost him a spot in the squad.
Still, there is plenty of potential in Fainga’anuku’s game, and if he can show improvements in the NPC while playing for Tasman, it wouldn’t be out of the question to suggest he would be in the running for a place in the end-of-year tour squad.
After slowly building his game over numerous seasons for the Chiefs, Samisoni Taukei’aho really stepped up his game this year in the No.2 jersey.
The 23-year-old hooker is a strong ball-runner and is a dependable line-out thrower, and that led many to suggest that he could snake into the All Blacks squad ahead of incumbent third-choice rake Asafo Aumua.
That didn’t happen, though, but, like Fainga’anuku, an impressive campaign in the NPC for Waikato could give him another shot at All Blacks selection later this year.
An integral figure for the Blues during their drought-breaking Super Rugby Trans-Tasman title-winning campaign, Tom Robinson loomed as a possible inclusion in this All Blacks squad.
A versatile forward capable of playing blindside flank and lock, the red-headed 26-year-old showed plenty of leadership, a high work rate and solidity at the set-piece, but was ultimately overlooked by Foster on this occasion.
Why exactly remains unclear, but with such a strong cohort of loose forwards, it was never going to be easy for Robinson to make the cut, but perhaps a strong showing for Northland this year could change Foster’s mind.
With Perenara deemed ineligible for All Blacks selection due to his contract status at the time of his departure to Japan for his sabbatical, the race was on for New Zealand’s halfbacks to take his place in the national squad.
One-test halfback Mitchell Drummond emerged as one of the leading contenders to do just that as he fought off Bryn Hall for a place in the Crusaders’ starting side and starred in the No 9 jersey.
That wasn’t enough to earn a re-call back into the All Blacks after a three-year absence, though, as Christie has been given the nod to show what he can do before Perenara becomes eligible once again.
To the disappointment of almost every Highlanders fan, electric wing Jona Nareki missed out on a maiden call-up to the All Blacks as the selectors opted to take just five outside backs.
It came as a bit of a surprise for some, as Nareki had impressed with his fleeting footwork, top-end speed and broad skill set, all of which was crucial in the Highlanders’ run to the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final.
It wasn’t to be for the 23-year-old, though, but the All Blacks’ loss will be Otago’s gain once the upcoming NPC rolls around in August.
Another highly-promising outside back considered a chance for All Blacks selection this year, Salesi Rayasi has missed out on the All Blacks squad despite his fine form for the Hurricanes.
Utilising his rangy, athletic build to full extent, the 24-year-old scored and set-up some lovely tries for the Wellington-based franchise this season, which came off the back of his ludicrous try-scoring run for Auckland in last year’s NPC.
However, Rayasi hasn’t been called upon by Foster, and you can’t help but wonder whether sticking with Sevens to chase an Olympic gold medal would have been a better option.
As already outlined above, Perenara’s omission from this squad is purely as a result of a contractual technicality that came as a result of signing a sabbatical deal to play in Japan while coming off-contract with New Zealand Rugby [NZR].
The 69-Test veteran has since signed a two-year contract extension with NZR, but that hasn’t made him available to play for the All Blacks, unlike others who have recently returned from Japan like Retallick and Beauden Barrett.
Instead, Perenara will need to play first-class rugby on Kiwi soil before being available for selection again, so expect to see him come back into the squad in place of Christie when the Rugby Championship rolls around.
By Alex McLeod, @RugbyPass