Why NZ will struggle to produce a World Cup-winning side in 2023
OPINION: The All Blacks are no longer World Cup holders after eight long years of dominance, both at the tournament and in between it with a 10-year run as the world’s number one side.
The bronze medal finish on the surface suggests the All Blacks have fallen back to the pack somewhat, but it doesn’t mean they are going to be losing regularly in the near future.
Putting too much weight on one semifinal finish during a knockout tournament that is unpredictable and requires a degree of luck and timing is folly.
However, what should concern New Zealand Rugby more is the long-term results of the Under-20 side that suggest World Cup wins in the future are going to be even harder to come by than it was this year.
Results at this youth level suggested this type of World Cup-result was coming in either 2023 or 2027. Instead, it is here one tournament earlier. The national pipeline has failed to maintain a level of dominance held by the senior All Blacks side for some time.
After winning the first four editions of the annual U20 tournament up to 2011 in dominant fashion, often blitzing finals by 20+ points, New Zealand has claimed two titles in eight years.
In more recent years, the side has placed as low as fifth (2016) and seventh (2019), both worst-ever results at the time.
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One could argue the format of the U20 championships is unforgiving with one pool loss ending any hopes of winning.
But that is exactly the point of the World Cup. It is tournament rugby that is predicated on a win-or-go-home finals format.
At the World U20 Championships, there are no easy pool games against developing or largely amateur nations like Canada or Namibia. It is also hard to argue that other top nations haven’t caught up when it comes to youth pathways and development systems.
The U20 team is supposed to be the elite players of each annual crop and the pipeline of the All Blacks of tomorrow. One-off blemishes wouldn’t suggest much, over eight years it paints a clearer picture.
The New Zealand system now has to play catch-up in terms of the development of athletes, players and squads to deliver World Cup wins based on U20 results since 2012. Success at the 2023 event in France will largely depend on how the U20 players from this decade develop, most of whom weren’t the best in the world in their age group.
The golden crop of 2011 that includes the likes of Beauden Barrett, Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane and Codie Taylor is going to need some help.
No doubt there will be, with stars like Damian McKenzie (2014) and Richie Mo’unga (2014), but there is a concerning lack of progression from the early U20 sides of this decade to provide the depth that World Cup-winning squads need.
The 2012 squad produced only two All Black forwards, Ofa Tu’ungafasi and Nathan Harris, the latter considered a fourth-string hooker and surplus to requirements for the World Cup, while Jordan Taufua was never capped. Only Bryn Hall and Marty McKenzie remain on New Zealand Super Rugby teams from the backs.
The 2013 squad brought through some gems in Ardie Savea and Scott Barrett, and solid prospects in Jackson Hemopo and Patrick Tuipulotu for a total of four All Blacks.
Hemopo has gone to Japan while Tuipulotu has re-signed until the end of 2020 and still is a flight risk before 2023. Savea is world-class and absolutely a critical retention for NZR after his contract expires in 2021, as is Barrett in 2020.
Not one member of the backs from the 2013 squad has gone on to play for the All Blacks and only Michael Collins and Tei Walden remain on Super Rugby squads.
From the 2014 side, just one forward has progressed to the All Blacks five years later in Atu Moli, while in the backs Damian McKenzie, Richie Mo’unga and Anton Lienert-Brown are the shining lights.
In Scott Robertson’s 2015 title-winning side, no new forwards have been capped outside of Moli, while only one further back, Jack Goodhue, has become a regular All Black.
The class of 2016 has offered one All Black from the backs so far, Jordie Barrett, while Asafo Aumua, Luke Jacobson and Dalton Papalii, who all repeated in the champion 2017 side, are capped forward prospects.
Jacobson’s early concussion issues present concerns over his longevity and Aumua hasn’t been able to nail down the starting hooker position at the Hurricanes as yet despite his immense talent.
From the title-winning 2017 side that thumped England, no new forwards have been capped while Brayden Ennor is the sole back. Will Jordan can’t be far away as another standout from that group. The announcement of the Super Rugby squads next week will reveal how many more from the U20 sides of 2017, 2018 and 2019 are progressing.
It could be argued that over this time it was as hard as ever to crack the All Blacks during their back-to-back World Cup titles, which has considerable merit. However, many of these U20 sides are littered with players who failed to progress enough to make impressionable careers out of Super Rugby.
Based on what is bubbling below the surface at U20 level, it will be one of the greatest ever achievements for New Zealand Rugby to build a World Champion All Blacks’ side again in 2023. Of course, they can do it, but expectations need to be reset following the exit at the hands of England.
The results at U20 level, along with the lack of progression afterward, are going to become due at some point. The All Blacks will still be strong over this next cycle but to win Rugby World Cups everything has to go right. Having world-class depth is also an insurance policy for a few unforeseen hiccups, of which just one can derail four years of work when it counts.
Hansen’s long-running tenure was an undoubted success, but results are never down to one man. Every All Black developed is the result of years of work, from school-level up, by many hard-working people in the country.
And that famed production line hasn’t been producing as much talent that kicks on lately. Combined with ever-building pressure to retain the ones that do, a drain on top coaching talent in New Zealand, international rugby is likely going to be more competitive than ever between the top four to five sides over the next few years.
And winning a knockout tournament will be harder than ever before by 2023.
By Ben Smith, @RugbyPass