Ben Smith's All Black report card
OPINION: The All Blacks 2022 season will be remembered as a turbulent time for the Men in Black after a rocky start that almost culminated in the sacking of head coach Ian Foster.
Coming off the back of losses to Ireland and France last year, the All Blacks lost a home series to Ireland 1-2 before dropping the first test to South Africa in Mbombela.
Hopes of turning around the season rested on the Ellis Park test against the Springboks, which the All Blacks won 35-23 to save their Rugby Championship hopes and secure the Freedom Cup.
They went on to retain the Bledisloe Cup with a 2-0 series win over Australia, capture the Rugby Championship crown, and finish the year with wins over Wales and Scotland before a draw against England.
The notable winners and losers of the All Blacks from the 2022 season.
John Plumtree and Brad Mooar (assistant coaches)
Foster’s assistants paid the price for the All Blacks’ wobbles. They were let go unceremoniously after the Ireland series defeat. Hard to not have the pair at the top of the list after being the first All Blacks coaches to be dismissed in a long time.
Foster waved goodbye to his hand-picked pair of assistants, one of whom the New Zealand Rugby Union had to make a release payment to secure in the first place. The strength of Foster’s coaching group was touted as a key reason he was handed the job, but three seasons into the decline the team was blown up.
Instead of going down with the ship as captain, Foster jumped on a new one with Joe Schmidt and Jason Ryan.
Both discarded coaches failed to really land on their feet, having previously been head coaches of the Hurricanes and Scarlets respectively. Plumtree picked up an assistant role with United States Eagles, while Mooar joined the Gwent Dragons as a helping hand briefly.
Nepo Laulala (Tighthead prop)
Laulala lost his standing in the propping stocks for the All Blacks after starting 11 Tests in 2021 at tighthead prop. He proved to be a casualty of the Ireland series, missing selection during the Rugby Championship as Tyrel Lomax became the established tighthead with rookie Fletcher Newell on the bench. Angus Ta’avao also registered a start ahead of Laulala.
The All Blacks’ tight five were found wanting against Ireland, slipping off tackles and failing to handle the breakdown effectively and the props paid the price.
Recalled for the Northern tour, Laulala started against Scotland but his performance off the bench in the implosion against England could spell the end of his All Blacks career. At the very least, he has a lot of work to do to win back a starting role or even a finishing role.
Pita Gus Sowakula (No.8)
Sowakula’s short-lived All Black career has been well documented. Restricted to bench cameos against Ireland, the Chiefs No 8 was subsequently overlooked for the Rugby Championship and hasn’t been picked since. His capping by New Zealand has been criticised with suggestions of ‘eligibility capture’ to prevent the Fijian playing for his native country.
However, it could be much simpler than that. Sowakula’s selection could easily have been tied to former forwards coach Plumtree who was known to be a strong advocate of his ball-carrying ability. Once Plumtree was gone, Sowakula lost his advocate in the All Blacks’ brain trust. He isn’t the only forward to lose standing since Jason Ryan took over.
Leicester Fainga’anuku (left wing)
The young Crusaders winger was given a rough introduction to top-flight rugby, starting the first two Tests against Ireland. His performance in the second Test, a 23-12 loss, ended up being his last of the year.
Ireland found him out defensively, whilst a yellow card didn’t help his cause. The talented Fainga’anuku was dropped for Sevu Reece for the decider, then surpassed by the returning Caleb Clarke for the Rugby Championship.
He was picked for the Northern Tour but withdrew for personal reasons. This early chapter for the dynamic Crusaders wing has been challenging but is just the beginning, he has the ability to bounce back and make it as an All Black.
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (inside centre)
The NRL star ends up on this list only because the All Blacks really failed to get the most of him in 2022. This isn’t just about his lack of starts, but how he was used off the bench as well.
Debuting in the third test against Ireland in the final 10 minutes, the All Blacks struggled to get him the ball. A midfield scrum in front of the posts with the defence split was seemingly not a good enough situation to give the hot-stepping No 12 the ball to make something happen.
When given the chance to start against Japan he was the All Blacks’ best, producing the goods to show his offloading ability, his strong carrying and his ability to make plays.
Given the expectations around Tuivasa-Sheck and the natural talent he has, it is still not clear where he will fit into the All Blacks plans with Jordie Barrett now becoming an option at second five in a crowded position with David Havili, Quinn Tupaea, Anton Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue all potential options in 2023.
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Ethan De Groot (loosehead prop)
The Highlanders loosehead prop made a successful return into the All Blacks fold after laughable suggestions by Ian Foster he needed to work on his fitness and work rate before the Ireland series.
The criticism by Foster simply didn’t hold much weight when the All Blacks were stacked with powerful but less mobile props in Nepo Laulala, Karl Tu’inukuafe and Ofa Tuungafasi.
They paid the price against Ireland for those selections while De Groot was part of the transformed the All Blacks front row that turned the performances around down the stretch, including the Ellis Park miracle.
Under new forwards coach Jason Ryan, De Groot made his mark and showed why Foster should have picked him in the first place.
Tyrel Lomax (tighthead prop)
The Hurricane had one of the biggest turnarounds in 2022, reviving his All Black career and cementing a place as a first-choice starter. Originally heading to South Africa as injury cover, Lomax started the second Test against the Springboks in the famous Ellis Park win and didn’t look back.
The 26-year-old went on to start all of the remaining Rugby Championship fixtures, and the Wales and England Tests on the end-of-year tour.
After just three starts in his first 15 Tests since his 2020 debut, Lomax’s remarkable rise is one of the All Blacks feel-good stories of 2022.
Samisoni Taukei’aho (Hooker)
Undoubtedly the find of 2022, no player was more important to the All Blacks revival in 2022 than Samisoni Taukei’aho. The Chiefs hooker hit the ground running in Mbombela in his pressure-cooker first start hitting crucial throws under pressure and bringing some much-needed punch up the middle in the carry game.
Although the All Blacks lost, Taukei’aho impressed by throwing at 100 per cent completing 10 from 10 lineouts and built on that performance the next week at Ellis Park, scoring a try in the All Blacks’ stunning 35-23 win.
His absence was cruelly felt when he was taken off in Christchurch against Argentina early, which then saw veteran Codie Taylor miss some critical throws down the stretch in that loss.
A man-of-the-match performance in Melbourne against the Wallabies followed, with two tries and nine carries while completing 100 per cent of his lineout throws.
The 25-year-old quickly became the first-choice hooker as the All Blacks opted to keep starting their new front row of De Groot, Taukei’aho and Lomax.
Dalton Papali’i (openside flank)
The Blues No 7 was arguably the form openside of Super Rugby before getting struck down with appendicitis towards the end of the season.
However, the 25-year-old had to bide his time for opportunities with the All Blacks as captain Cane started throughout the season as the side searched for answers.
Against the Brave Blossoms, Papali’i produced a whirlwind cameo to help the All Blacks hold on, coming up with 9 tackles in 15 minutes and the final penalty at the breakdown to turn over Japan’s last attacking chance.
After Cane suffered facial fractures in that 38-31 win over Japan, the door opened for Papali’i to show what he could do in a starting role.
With Papali’i in the lineup, the All Blacks didn’t miss a beat in the back row with a bruising performance against Wales, completing 16 tackles and making an early line break in the lead-up to the first try. He also added a turnover.
Against Scotland he had another two-turnover performance, coming up with 13 tackles in another solid outing, while against England he snatched a runaway intercept try, 13 tackles and another turnover.
Papali’i elevated his case for starting over Cane with his performances at the back of the year, but is unlikely to usurp the All Blacks captain.
Rieko Ioane (outside centre)
Ioane finished the year cemented as the All Blacks’ best option at centre heading into 2023. Despite some flaws in his attacking game that was on show against Ireland, the Blues midfielder became a much more efficient playmaker as the season progressed, setting up his outsides with regularity.
The switch flipped for Ioane at Ellis Park as the All Blacks opted to run it wide from deep against South Africa which utilised Ioane’s speed.
There were still some missed opportunities, like his monster break at Eden Park against the Wallabies with Will Jordan looming up on his outside, but even that play showed Ioane was assessing his options with more impetus rather than purely playing with blinkers.
Perhaps more importantly, Ioane’s defence went to another level in 2022 with a number of critical try-saving tackles a testament to his improving D. He held up numerous players over the line, including a key stop on Andrew Kellaway in Melbourne.
With Goodhue injured and Lienert-Brown coming back late from an injury, Ioane is best placed to wear the No 13 jersey at the World Cup in part due to the new style of play that the All Blacks coaches want.
Ioane is a breakaway threat that is now being utilised more effectively, while all the other parts of his game continue to rise.
Joe Schmidt (assistant coach)
The former Ireland head coach ended up in an ideal role to help the All Blacks after originally taking up a selectors role.
As an assistant, he will stay out of the spotlight and away from the media duties, but retains a hands-on role on the field overseeing the small details which seem to be his expertise.
Many players are seeing the benefit of Schmidt’s coaching with far better execution across their attacking play.
Given the state of chaos that the side was in when he joined, Schmidt will be praised if they win but won’t cop all the blame if they lose.