New Zealand's incredible depth on display
OPINION: Last year New Zealand Rugby unveiled a new second-tier team that was set to tour North America in the latter stages of the test calendar.
The New Zealand XV was due to play Fiji and two other sides in October and November, but plans were scuppered due to the global pandemic.
While nothing concrete has been announced, the expectation is the New Zealand XV will assemble later this year for their first-ever matches.
With the All Blacks set to take part in a bumper five-game tour at the end of the season – after playing 10 matches throughout the formative part of the year – Ian Foster will likely take a massive squad to the Northern Hemisphere with him.
There’s a very good chance that some of those players will be called upon for the first match – likely against Japan – before they part ways with the team and link up with the second-tier side for their matches.
The All Blacks have already announced their first 36-man squad for the year and while the team that’s selected for the end of year tour will certainly have some differences, especially after taking into consideration the injuries that will inevitably occur in such a long season, it’s worthwhile assessing the strength of New Zealand’s current depth and taking a look at what the new New Zealand XV might look like ahead of schedule.
There are two hookers running about in New Zealand rugby at present who’ve previously represented the All Blacks but weren’t named earlier this month in the national side: Liam Coltman and Nathan Harris.
Coltman has been playing second fiddle to Ash Dixon at the Highlanders for the past three seasons while Harris returned from a long-term injury earlier this year, and has played just a handful of Super Rugby matches since 2019.
It’s Dixon, perhaps, who is the most qualified to wear the No 2 jersey for the All Blacks XV. The 32-year-old Maori All Blacks captain is unlikely to ever feature for the first team but his credentials are unparalleled at Super Rugby level.
The Chiefs’ Samisoni Taukei’aho, meanwhile, is a bruising ball-carrier who admittedly needs to workout on his lineout delivery but as a high ceiling to work towards, given he’s still just 23 years of age.
Other contenders include Ricky Riccitelli and Kurt Eklund, who will likely be going head-to-head for the Blues starting hooker jersey next season, if the rumours are to be believed.
New Zealand has to dig deep into their propping reserves this year, thanks to injuries to Joe Moody and Ofa Tu’ungafasi.
Loosehead Aidan Ross was unlucky to miss out on selection in the All Blacks – with Foster plumping for young gun Ethan de Groot – while the Blues’ Alex Hodgman was also used by the national team last year. Given development will be a key factor for the All Blacks XV, Tamaiti Williams and Ollie Norris would be high on the list, with the former likely getting the nod as the third loosehad in the squad.
On the tighthead side, the stocks don’t run quite so deep. Recent Chiefs returnee Atunaisa Moli would likely get the call-up, despite playing limited minutes over the past two season, thanks to his obvious potential, while Blues and Maori representative Marcel Renata is highly respected. The next cab off the ranks would likely be the Irish-born Crusaders prop Oli Jager, who is expected to take over from the Irish-bound Michael Alaalatoa as the Cantabrian’s first-choice No 3 next season.
If there’s one area that New Zealand’s blessed with exceptional young talent, it’s the second row. Even having selected five locks for the current All Blacks squad, there are a number of talent players who missed out on selection who will challenge for spots in the years to come. Given that NZ has a bit of a crisis in the second row last year, that should be music to the ears of Foster and co.
The Crusaders pair of Mitch Dunshea and Quentin Strange both spent time in camp with the All Blacks last year, though neither managed to make it on the park.
Maori All Blacks lock Pari Pari Parkinson, meanwhile, is an imposing figure who’s still coming to terms with how to best utilise his incredible size and power but is certainly one for the future.
Throw in the raw talents of Blues newcomer Sam Darry and the young Chiefs due of Naitoa Ah Kuoi and Josh Lord, and the stocks are well and truly brimming.
If the selectors are looking for more experience in the second row, then Highlander Josh Dickson was knocking on the national selection door last year while his Maori All Blacks teammate, Isaia Walker-Leawere, must be there or thereabouts too. Departing lock Gerard Cowley-Tuioti is another who’s stood up this year and was voted the Players’ Player of the Year and the Blues Most Valuable Player at the recent Blues end of season awards.
Like the second row, New Zealand is not short of capable loose forwards at present.
Tom Robinson would be a lock for the blindside flanker role thanks to his dynamism and his presence in the line out.
Highlanders openside Billy Harmon has had a breakout season after shifting south from the Crusaders. His former teammate Tom Christie would put up a good fight for the No 7 jersey but is currently out through injury while Japan-bound Lachlan Boshier was unlucky to not wear the silver fern at some stage throughout his career. There’s also Du’Plessis Kirifi to consider, who spent time with the All Blacks in 2020.
At the back of the scrum, Fijian-born Pita Gus Sowakula continues to impress for the Chiefs while Hugh Renton has had a remarkable resurgence with the Highlanders this year. Devan Flanders, meanwhile, is developing into an excellent blindside flanker/number 8 for the Hurricanes.
Then there’s Cullen Grace, the 21-year-old who made his All Blacks debut last season but struggled at times for the Crusaders this year. He still has a huge career ahead of him and must have still been very close to the national team this year.
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TJ Perenara isn’t currently eligible for any NZ side – but would likely be playing for the All Blacks if fit, potentially handing a starting All Blacks XV jersey to Finlay Christie.
Otherwise, the Crusaders combo of Mitchell Drummond and Bryn Hall impresses every season and both player toured with the national side in 2018. Chiefs youngster Xavier Roe is one for the future and could develop into something special with more time in the saddle while his teammate Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi just needs to get back out on the field.
Folau Fakatava is another who is nearing All Blacks selection but was robbed of any change of getting a call-up at this stage of his career thanks to injury.
There’s not too much proven depth in New Zealand at first five behind the All Blacks contingent right now.
Mitch Hunt and Josh Ioane both put the odd exceptional performance together for the Highlanders but consistency isn’t their forte. Senior Blues-man Otere Black is perhaps the most collected of the NZ No 10 options but is heading offshore at the end of the year.
Otherwise, Hurricanes youngster Ruben Love could have a big future ahead of him but could be shifted away from the action into the outside backs while the Chiefs’ Kaleb Trask has his moments, but is mostly playing at fullback at present.
It’s a similar story for breakout Blues star Zarn Sullivan, who has been fantastic for the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman champions this year, especially given his age.
Like in the front row, the All Blacks are already stretched thin in the midfield – but there are plenty of young up-and-comers who could be ready to make the step up in the coming years.
The Hurricanes combo of Billy Proctor and Peter Umaga-Jensen both have their strengths, with Proctor an hard-worker off the ball and Umaga-Jensen a hard-runner with the ball in hand. Procotor’s midfield partner for the Maori All Blacks, Alex Nankivell, is also a safe pair of hands.
TJ Faiane has been the glue that holds the Blues’ backline together over the past few seasons but is off to Japan, which would impact his chances of selection, while another promising players, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, is sidelined through injury.
That leaves Crusaders behemoth Leicester Fainga’anuku, who has flitted between left wing and centre this year but could make a name for himself in the latter role with some regular minutes on the park.
Even with Caleb Clarke at the sevens, NZ still boasts some handy depth in the outside backs.
Fainga’anuku would be a lock for the left wing if he weren’t selected primarily as a midfielder – but it does open the door for dangerman Mark Telea, who started out the season slowly with the Blues but has found a rich vein of form late in the Trans-Tasman campaign.
There’s also Highlander Jona Nareki, who has a raking left boot, and Hurricane Salesi Rayasi, who possesses a similar skillset. Throw in Julian Savea, Wes Goosen and perhaps Jonah Lowe, and the New Zealand XV has plenty of options on the wings.
It’s a similar story at fullback, with Kaleb Trask, Zarn Sullivan, Ruben Love and Josh Ioane all possible options.
A possible 32-man New Zealand XV squad:
Hookers: Ash Dixon, Samisoni Taukei’aho, Kurt Eklund
Props: Aidan Ross, Alex Hodgman, Tamaiti Williams, Atunaisa Moli, Oli Jager
Locks: Mitch Dunshea, Quinten Strange, Pari Pari Parkinson, Naitoa Ah Kuoi
Loose forwards: Tom Robinson, Devan Flanders, Billy Harmon, Du’Plessis Kirifi, Pita Gus Sowakula, Cullen Grace
Scrumhalves: Mitch Drummond, Bryn Hall, Xavier Roe
Flyhalves: Otere Black, Mitch Hunt, Ruben Love
Midfield: Billy Harmon, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Leicester Fainga’anuku, Alex Nankivell
Outside backs: Jona Nareki, Mark Telea, Salesi Rayasi, Zarn Sullivan
By Tom Vinicombe, RugbyPass