NZ Rugby World
Watching the All Blacks trudge slowly round the field in Yokohama last year after they had been knocked out of the World Cup by England, there was a definite sense that it was time for a new beginning.
The national team had been creaking for the last 12 months or so. That was apparent not just in the results, but in the performances, too and the slightly uncertain vibe that emanated from the coaching team.
The confidence of the team dipped from the middle of 2018 through to that loss in Japan. What that meant was that the All Blacks lost the ability they had between 2012 and 2016 to dig their way out of any hole in which they found themselves.
They could put that down to many factors. New, younger players forced their way into the team and they lacked the leadership skills and collective experience of old. There were several key players injured at various times leading into the World Cup and possibly most significantly, opposition sides improved, especially their defensive and physical work and the All Blacks were vulnerable to it.
The nature of the loss to England confirmed what many feared was already true that the All Blacks were in need of a re-set.
And here we are now, albeit in a much-changed global landscape as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, ready to begin this new journey with the national team. We will see, in late August, just how much of a re-set new coach Ian Foster felt there needed to be in regard to personnel.
He’s expected to name the squad straight after the
North Island versus South Island fixture at Eden Park on August 29 and we expect new faces, of course, but not wholesale change.
As much as it feels like it’s time to start again, the bulk of the personnel involved at last year’s World Cup remain the right players for the All Blacks.
There was youth throughout the backline in Japan. Richie Mo’unga, Jack Goodhue, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sevu Reece and George Bridge were all in their earlymid 20s and 2023 will be their time to shine.
Rieko Ioane and Jordie Barrett are two potential superstars of the game and only 23, while all four locks who were at the World Cup in 2019 have signed through to 2023.
The five props who were at the last World Cup could easily make it to France, as could Codie Taylor and possibly even, although it would be a stretch, Dane Coles.
With Sam Cane now captain and Ardie Savea only 26, both of them could and should be around in three years and we can only wonder how good Beauden Barrett will be by then as he seems to get quicker and better with age.
So there is an established core who should still be playing well enough to command test places in three years. Based on what we have seen in the stop-start programme of 2020, other players such as David Havili, Dalton Papalii and Braydon Ennor who have been on the fringes of the squad, could push on and become regulars.
And then there are the new and emerging players such as Hoskins Sotutu, Will Jordan, Cullen Grace and Caleb Clarke – youngsters who are demanding attention and making strong bids to be included in the All Blacks.
They have impressed in 2020 and look like the sort of players who, if given the chance to experience test football, will develop into world class talents.
And that’s essentially what this issue is devoted to – trying to work out how the national team will evolve between now and 2023.
To that end we have turned the spotlight on the three different categories of players mentioned – established, fringe and emerging.
We have picked 10 players from each who we feel have a realistic to strong chance of making it to France in 2023. But while the evolution of personnel is the topic that will grab most attention, perhaps the bigger issue for the All Blacks is evolving their style of play in the next three years.
Foster has said a few times now that he feels the All Blacks have one obvious area in which they must improve and that is in the art of fronting against the most confrontational and physical sides.
England dominated the All Blacks physically in Yokohama as they did in November 2018. Ireland and South Africa also had tests in 2018 in which they won the gainline and New Zealand needs to tighten its ability to confront and repel in the collision zones.
It’s not something anyone should worry about as the athletes and skills are all there, but the team does need to get better at knowing when to be more direct and limited with its approach and earn the right to play wider and faster.
We might not get to see too much of that this year as the likelihood is the All Blacks will only play the Wallabies in a four-test series, with maybe a test against Fiji a possibility.
But next year, when hopefully borders open and normal service resumes, we will start to see how Foster plans to evolve the All Blacks.