The biggest positional holes the All Blacks must address under Scott Robertson
Beauden Barrett, once thought to be finished after signing a one-year deal with Toyota Verblitz, is on the verge of a new deal with NZR through to 2027 to resume his All Black career.
The bulk of the squad will return which means new head coach Scott Robertson will inherit a strong core of players in 2024 with more players pressing for selection through Super Rugby.
There are really only a few key selections for Robertson & his staff to address to plug the known absences.
The first area of concern is blindside flanker where Shannon Frizell clearly made a difference.
When the All Blacks had him, they were formidable, and when they didn’t, they lacked physicality to match the big sides. For whatever reason, Frizell made the side click over the back half of 2022 and 2023.
However, during his time as Crusaders head coach Robertson saw many different loose forward combinations. He oversaw the transition from a loose trio of Kieran Read, Matt Todd and Jordan Taufua to the likes of Cullen Grace, Ethan Blackadder, Tom Christie and others.
If anyone can find the ideal replacement for Frizell with the All Blacks, it will be Robertson and Ryan.
Samipeni Finau of the Chiefs was a debutant before the World Cup, while Tupou Vaa’i was tried unsuccessfully there against France in the opening pool game. Akira Ioane was a large part of Foster’s plans before being left out of the 2023 squad.
Odds are that it will be a Crusader that fills Frizell’s boots, with Blackadder one of the favourites to become the next starting All Black No 6.
In the second row the All Blacks will undeniably go backward.
Losing Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick, two all-time greats of the game, simply can’t be done without suffering a drop off.
The question is who will partner Scott Barrett, who is world-class and could possibly be Robertson’s pick for captain.
Tupou Vaa’i and Josh Lord were the young pair invested in by Foster’s staff. Both are 22 and 23 years old with plenty of development still to come. If Super Rugby form impresses, Quinten Strange will be in the mix as a bolter.
Of all the uncapped locks in New Zealand, Strange has the frame to play Test rugby and will likely start for the Crusaders most weeks now that Whitelock has retired.
But the forgotten man is Patrick Tuipulotu of the Blues.
In 2020, his play during Super Rugby elevated to a high level as he took on extra leadership at the franchise.
At just 30 years of age there is plenty of vintage years to come after playing the last of his 44 Tests in 2022. He’s back at the Blues and under contract until 2025.
When you lose two world class locks and your best No 6, it stands to reason that the All Blacks’ lineout will have growing pains in 2024. Relying on combinations already formed at Super Rugby level could be the solution.
For the first time in a long time the All Blacks halves pairing is uncertain.
The All Blacks’ most capped halfback of all-time in Aaron Smith has departed leaving a gaping hole in experience and depth.
The young Hurricanes’ No 9 was a bolter selection based on a breakout year and offers explosive running from the base.
His style of play is 9-centric, with a lot of taxiing off the base and sniping around the ruck. This can throw out the timing of an attacking shape and might not be suitable in all systems.
Under Robertson the Crusaders never had a running No 9, always preferring pure distributors in Bryn Hall and Mitch Drummond for quick service.
It remains to be seen what kind of No 9 Robertson wants and will choose, but all three are in the mix.
Who that man will pass to is also a mystery, but Damian McKenzie remains the front-runner after starting at No 10 in 2023 on a few occasions for the All Blacks.
With Mo’unga ineligible (unless the rules are changed) and Barrett not yet signed to a new sunset deal, the Chiefs’ first five-eighth is set to become the guy after signing a long-term deal with NZR.
A bolter selection for a debut is Fergus Burke, the Crusaders’ fullback who will likely fill Mo’unga’s No 10 jersey in 2024 in Super Rugby. His play in 2023 was exceptional and he even became the primary playmaker at times.
Burke will become an All Black, the only question is when. He is in line to become one of the hybrid 10-15 options in 2024, whilst Stephen Perofeta of the Blues can also push his way back into contention.
The exciting young fullbacks in New Zealand, Zarn Sullivan at the Blues and Ruben Love of the Hurricanes, would need to elevate their play significantly to be considered. They have the potential but 2024 might be too early.
The best player in Super Rugby in 2023, Shaun Stevenson, could barely crack the squad who will be looking to add to his one cap, whilst Will Jordan could become the first-choice fullback if he can develop accuracy in his kicking game.
At Test level he has been wayward, kicking out on the full far too much. The reason why Barrett held selection over Jordan in the No 15 role was his ability to manage the backfield and relieve pressure consistently.
Overall, Robertson will inherit a very capable group of All Blacks, most of the World Cup squad with only a few uncertain areas that need answers.
Join free and tell us what you really think!Sign up for free