It is a near impossible task to live up to the gruelling expectations of a portion of society who invest so much, if anything too much, love into a sport they funnily have minimal to no direct impact on.
New Zealand is no different to the rest of the world. For India, it is cricket… Brazil, it is football… for kiwis, it is rugby. Deeply embedded in the fabric of what makes the country what it is, some 15-man code from the early grassroots stages right through to the very definition of accomplishment in their national team, the All Blacks, the game is by default a must-follow for those spread across the three islands.
And with ongoing success comes educated estimations – as silverware is garnered, so are weighty expectations.
So how do you cater to that? How do you make sure the work done to ensure results is enough to satisfy the public? Oddly the All Blacks have not been short of rubbing people the wrong way on and off the field in the last year. They under-performed at the 2019 Rugby World Cup with a third placing, after failing to match the intensity and energy of England in the semi-finals. A month or so afterwards, they appointed Ian Foster as the new coach, succeeding Steve Hansen who held the role for eight years following the drought-breaking win at the 2011 World Cup.
That coaching move stirred its fair share of criticism. It is interesting how the leading assistant under the coach who curated the most successful era in the team’s history, and now has the top job, is not the biggest fan favourite. Bewildering to many, I am sure.
Nevertheless Foster has a big task on his hands to restore genuine excitement in and out of camp. Modern-day legends have left New Zealand for overseas adventures or the rewarding retirement years, leaving some positions thin and in need of development.
Foster also needs to work out his best side from minimal source material, and then get them up to scratch for tests being played in the near future. This all assuming the global pandemic dies down enough that an international competition, resembling a Bledisloe Cup series or Rugby Championship can be established, where ever that ends up being.
But Super Rugby Aotearoa has been a success, offering a quality product for fans to enjoy and players to build off. There have been the consistent performers, there have been the form droppers, there have been the bolters, and the odd question marks.
But at this stage, an All Blacks match day 23 squad is starting to emerge from the fog.
* – new cap
Front row: Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, Ofa Tuungafasi
Joe Moody has been a steady performer for the Crusaders, as expected, and will retain his spot. The change comes with Ofa Tuungafasi, who has been menacing in the Blues scrum and a key in their improved defensive line. Nepo Laulala has not been bad, but simply not on Tuungafasi’s level.
Codie Taylor’s work on both sides of the ball and his leadership has both been on full display, and helps pip him ahead of Dane Coles. Coles’ injury concerns do not help his case.
Locks: Patrick Tuipulotu, Sam Whitelock
Injuries to Brodie Retallick and Scott Barrett mean these two get selected by default, but it is not a case of last resort. Patrick Tuipulotu is arguably in the form of his life captaining the Blues to their best season in nine years, and at the centre of the side’s impressive forward pack. Sam Whitelock will retain a role he has held since 2011, and although age is beginning to hinder his impact, he is still a safe pair of hands to lean on.
Loose forwards: Ardie Savea, Sam Cane ©, Hoskins Sotutu*
It is a tough process to work out the loose forward trio without a lot of mixing and matching. Kieran Read’s retirement leaves a big hole at number eight, and perhaps it is time to look to the future. Hoskins Sotutu has been the best of the lot – a revelation for the Blues and one of the country’s form forwards, so he is deserving of at least shot at the black jersey.
Sam Cane as captain will man the seven jersey, leaving the electric Ardie Savea to slot in at blindside. Shannon Frizell and the un-capped Lachlan Boshier could sneak into the starting group should their form at the back end of the domestic competition eclipse the rest.
Halfback: Aaron Smith
No surprises here. It is unfortunate for TJ Perenara to be in his prime while Aaron Smith is also enjoying his best days. Smith’s case for the starting role received a major boost after his performance against the Chiefs on Sunday, with his exceptional passing game and attacking instincts helping carry the Highlanders to a comeback win.
As long as Smith plays at this level, the starting job is his until retirement.
First-five: Richie Mo’unga
Once again no surprises here, thanks to the incumbent performing at an expectedly high level.
Richie Mo’unga has again been immense in the Crusaders charge towards a fourth consecutive title. Even when he is having an off night, he finds ways to produce for his side. Against the Blues his kicking game and decision making was poor early on, but a cheeky grubber kick-off helped stripped the Aucklanders of momentum, and a beautiful cut out ball set-up the match winning try.
Midfield: Ngani Laumape, Jack Goodhue
While I refuse to extensively engage in the fandom for Ngani Laumape as an obvious choice in the midfield, there is not another player who has outperformed him enough this year.
Laumape resembles the hard running style that made Ma’a Nonu a colossus for so long. Both can attack the line hard, bust through tackles and draw in defenders, freeing up the rest of the backline – skills that Anton Lienert-Brown, who started the key World Cup games a year ago, simply does not have at the same level. Laumape deserves a crack in the first test.
Jack Goodhue remaining in the 13 jumper is a no-brainer. Defence, supply, hard-running – he does it all.
Outside Backs: George Bridge, Sevu Reece, Beauden Barrett
Reliability prevails on the wings with George Bridge and Sevu Reece who have been sound for the Crusaders in 2020. While the likes of Mark Telea and Caleb Clarke are rising prospects, you want comfort when rebuilding your no-longer-World-Champion side. Reece’s defence at times is suspect, but that’s a minor blimp in an otherwise exciting package.
The pair never put a foot wrong for the All Blacks in a handful of games last year either.
While Beauden Barrett’s form at fullback for the Blues has been good at best, it is criminal to leave him out of the starting side. Nothing to see here.
Bench: Dane Coles, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Nepo Laulala, Mitchell Dunshea*, Dalton Papali’i, TJ Perenara, Jordie Barrett, Will Jordan*
There are a host of exciting locks and while some have a bit more experience under their belt, few have shown the promise of Mitchell Dunshea – one of many young Crusaders set to break the All Blacks squad in the future.
Dalton Papali’I’s versatility helps push him onto the bench, for the mean time, ahead of Boshier, Frizell or another potential bolter in Cullen Grace.
Jordie Barrett can cover every position in the backline bar halfback, while Will Jordan’s explosive performances have been spread across the back three, creating a good amount of cover in the backs. Sadly that leaves out Damian McKenzie, who is yet to find his best after returning from an injury. He will not be out of the 23 for long.
Sports writer based in Auckland, New Zealand. I have a strong passion for a range of codes, including the NBA, NFL, Soccer, Rugby and more.