The search for the next All Black flyhalf
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: New Zealand has a habit of blooding players in key positions immediately after a World Cup.
In 2008, Stephen Donald was brought into the mix and eventually played a major role in New Zealand winning their first World Cup in 24 years when he was called upon for the 2011 Final.
In 2012, Beauden Barrett earned his first cap and although he played primarily in the outside backs for the national side, it was always at 10 where the coaches saw his long-term future.
In 2016, it was Damian McKenzie’s turn. Like Barrett, McKenzie was viewed as a player who could cover both fullback and flyhalf. He’s now seemingly found a home for himself at the back of the field and it would take a brave man not to pick him as the All Blacks’ starting 15 for the first Test of the year in July.
Unlike in 2011, 2015 and 2019, however, New Zealand took just two flyhalves to the 2019 World Cup: Barrett and Richie Mo’unga.
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Jordie Barrett was called upon to wear 10 in the All Blacks’ 71-9 victory over Namibia but Mo’unga started in the playmaker position for every other match of the tournament.
Had McKenzie been fit, he likely would have been in the squad too – but he’s certainly more of a 15 that can cover 10 than vice-versa.
Unlike in previous years, New Zealand hasn’t lost any flyhalf overseas in the cyclical post-World Cup exodus.
As such, there’s no one that actually needs replacing – but that doesn’t mean Ian Foster won’t be on the look out for a new player to fill the boots of Barrett or Mo’unga in due course.
Realistically, Barret, Mo’unga and McKenzie will likely all be available for the All Blacks in 2023, with Barrett the oldest at just 28-years-old. For reference, Dan Carter was 33 at the 2015 World Cup.
New Zealand’s greatest strength over some other rugby-playing nations, however, is that no player’s spot is guaranteed – there’s always something nipping at your heels, forcing you to be better.
And that’s exactly who Foster will be searching for; a young, up-and-coming prospect that can bring the best out of the relatively experienced trio that the All Blacks currently have in their possession.
At present, however, it’s not exactly clear who that prospect will be.
Starting in the deep south, the Highlanders have on their books the player with arguably the best chance at really pushing the current incumbents, Josh Ioane.
Ioane was called into the All Blacks squad at the start of 2019 but it wasn’t until New Zealand’s warm-up match with Tonga in September that he finally took the field.
That’s not dissimilar to how his Highlanders predecessor, Lima Sopoaga, was first called up to the national side.
Sopoaga earned an All Blacks call-up in 2015 for the Rugby Championship and was handed a debut against the Springboks in Johannesburg – one of the toughest assignments in international football. Sopoaga passed the test with flying colours and was one of New Zealand’s best performers in the 27-20 win.
The Wellington-born flyhalf wasn’t needed for the World Cup later that year, however, despite his obvious credentials. With Dan Carter, Beauden Barrett and Colin Slade all fit, Sopoaga was left in New Zealand – and was probably behind the injured Aaron Cruden in the pecking order too.
Unlike Sopoaga, who had won a Super Rugby title with the Highlanders and banked plenty of experience at that level, Ioane was still a relative newbie when he made his debut.
Sopoaga forced his way into the All Blacks on the back of being ready to play international rugby. Ioane, on the other hand, was basically the last 10 standing in the country and Steve Hansen and his fellow selectors were desperate for a backup.
That’s not to say that Ioane isn’t incredibly talented, but he’ll need to seriously step up his game in 2020 if he wants a spot in the national team.
That’s going to be especially tricky for the 24-year-old as Aaron Mauger, Ioane’s Super Rugby coach, has seen fit to shift him to the midfield for the opening rounds of Super Rugby.
Starting out in the midfield before moving closer to the action isn’t a bad option for a wannabe-flyhalf, but it doesn’t bode well for a player to be heading in the opposite direction.
With Ioane at 12, former Crusader Mitch Hunt has taken the reins at flyhalf.
Hunt, who has spent his short Super Rugby career camped behind Mo’unga, has shifted south for more game time and that’s brought immediate dividends for the Tasman product, starting the last three matches (including one pre-season game) at 10.
Hunt’s never really been in discussions concerning the national squad but that’s effectively been a product of his gametime being incredibly limited at the Crusaders.
The former New Zealand Under 20 player (he shared the flyhalf duties with Otere Black) could make a genuine play for a spot in the All Blacks now that he’s regularly starting in the No.10 jersey.
At Hunt’s old franchise, Mo’unga’s back-up hasn’t had much luck to start the season off.
Despite having Brett Cameron, a one-cap All Black, on the books, coach Scott Robertson opted to start utility David Havili against the Chiefs with Mo’unga nursing a minor injury.
Cameron has yet to showcase the ability that saw him called into the 2018 All Blacks touring squad for the Crusaders.
In 2019, Cameron started just one Super Rugby match: the Crusaders’ loss against the Waratahs. He managed just 104 minutes in total and, by the end of the season, had been usurped as Mo’unga’s back-up by Hunt.
With Havili preferred to Cameron for last weekend’s game, it doesn’t appear that stars are aligning yet for Canterbury’s next top flyhalf.
Perhaps if Cameron were to follow Hunt’s lead and head elsewhere, he might have more luck.
The Hurricanes, in particular, look like they could sorely use a commander with a high ceiling.
In 2019, the Hurricanes trialled both Fletcher Smith and Jackson Garden-Bachop at 10 when Beauden Barrett was unavailable.
Neither player exactly took their chances and with Barrett now in Auckland, it’s anyone’s guess who’s going to take the lead in 2020.
Smith, who has been one of the best players in the NPC over the last two seasons, had a horrible performance against the Stormers in round one (but so did everyone else in the team) while Garden-Bachop was tidy against the Jaguares but didn’t exactly set the backline alight.
It’s early days yet, but neither player looks destined for Super Rugby greatness and the mid-20-year-olds are not exactly spring chickens anymore, with plenty of 20 and 21-year-old playmakers coming through the ranks.
In Chiefs country, it’s the return of 31-year-old Aaron Cruden that’s causing waves.
Cruden departed New Zealand’s shores at the end of 2017 after ceding his starting role at the All Blacks to Beauden Barrett.
Despite Barrett’s elevation, Cruden was always a more natural playmaker from 10 and although he had a torrid time in France, the little general doesn’t appear to have lost any of the spark and control that helped the Chiefs to two titles in 2012 and 2013.
Cruden, however, is not going to be travelling to the 2023 World Cup. He’s already signed a contract to play in Japan at the end of the current Super Rugby season and even if he were to renege on that deal, he’ll lose some of the acceleration and agility that currently makes him such a threat at first-receiver.
If Cruden had been playing for the Chiefs in 2019 then he may well have found himself in the All Blacks squad for the World Cup but as there’s nothing of comparable magnitude on the line in 2020, his time in the national side is over.
Foster will be excited to have Cruden back in the country regardless because he will provide plenty of mentoring and support to the Chiefs’ other flyhalves, the inexperienced duo of Kaleb Trask and Tiaan Falcon.
Both players have the potential to achieve great things for their club and possibly even country, but they’re at least a few seasons away from being ready for Test rugby.
Which leaves us with the Blues; New Zealand’s perennial strugglers over the last fifteen years.
The Blues, as anyone on the street will be quick to tell you, have been desperate for a high-quality flyhalf for the longest time. They’ve finally managed to do the impossible and lure Beauden Barrett north, but he won’t feature for the franchise until part-way through the year (and still has a season-long sabbatical to take at some point too).
From the All Blacks’ point of view, that’s actually a very good thing.
It gives Barrett the time to freshen up but, possibly more importantly, it presents opportunities to the Blues’ young flyhalves to assert themselves at Super Rugby level.
Stephen Perofeta’s career to date has been plagued by injury but the 22-year-old is finally free for ailments and is has clocked up plenty of minutes for the Blues in their two fixtures this year.
Those minutes haven’t exactly been mind-blowing, with the Taranki pivot’s decision-making and strategic kicking below par against the Chiefs and his goal-kicking incredibly wayward in both matches (however wind likely played a large part in his hiccups against the Waratahs).
Still, Perofeta has always promised plenty and now the young man finally has the chance to prove his worth.
Harry Plummer, who’s sat on the bench for the opening two rounds, is another who actually looks like he has the potential to take the step up to the next level at some point – but that’s all dependant on actually getting on the park.
The situation is further complicated by Otere Black, who has been injured since the season began but was the Blues’ chief playmaker in 2019.
Black moved north from the Hurricanes to escape Barrett’s shadow, but he could well find himself pushed out of the Blues altogether when the All Blacks flyhalf is finally available for selection.
Nation-wide, it’s clear that there are plenty of young 10s with the potential to one day play for the All Blacks but none that really look ready for international rugby as yet.
Perhaps Foster won’t follow his predecessors’ steps and blood a new flyhalf in the first year after a World Cup – perhaps the best plan is to simply wait and see who emerges in time for the next tournament in 2023.
With Beauden Barrett, Richie Mo’unga, Damian McKenzie and Jordie Barrett all on the books for 2020, the All Blacks have plenty of coverage in the No.10 jersey and now may not be the best time to bring a new playmaker into the fold – but flyhalf-turned-coach Ian Foster will certainly be keeping his eye on the young talent making waves in Super Rugby this year.
By Tom Vinicombe, RugbyPass