- Publish Date
- Thursday, 8 February 2024, 8:51AM
After missing out on Rugby World Cup spots, fringe All Blacks face stern challenges in their efforts to impress new All Blacks boss Scott Robertson.
The departure of Aaron Smith after more than a decade as first-choice All Blacks halfback opens the door for a long-term replacement. By impressing last year, Hurricane Cam Roigard has been pencilled in by many as the heir apparent, but the 24-year-old Folau Fakatava, who served with distinction as Smith’s understudy at the Highlanders, will have plenty to say about that.
Fakatava made his All Blacks debut off the bench in the home series against Ireland in 2022 and has two caps so far. He’s had his injury problems since then, but at his best, Fakatava is an exciting, imposing player, with an incisive running game, accurate pass and strong defence. By becoming the starting halfback for the Highlanders, he’ll have the chance to show he can consistently lead a Super Rugby side from the outset, rather than being part of a one-two punch off the bench.
Competition: Finlay Christie (Blues), Cortez Ratima (Chiefs), Cam Roigard, T.J. Perenara (Hurricanes)
It’s almost 11 months since Sevu Reece suffered a serious knee injury while playing for the Crusaders against the Blues. Shortly afterwards, it was confirmed that he had ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and his Rugby World Cup hopes were over.
Reece, who will be 27 later this month, has amassed 15 tries in his 23 test caps since bursting onto the international stage in 2019. As always, the depth of outside back talent in New Zealand is the envy of the world and of the five players chosen for the Rugby World Cup, only Leicester Fainga’anuku has departed (to Toulon). But new All Blacks coach Scott Robertson knows Reece well and a strong Super Rugby Pacific campaign will mean an international recall is hard to resist.
Competition: Caleb Clarke, Mark Tele’a (Blues), Emoni Narawa, Shaun Stevenson (Chiefs), Will Jordan (Crusaders)
Chiefs second five-eighths Quinn Tupaea was another victim of a ruptured ACL and missed the entire 2023 Super Rugby Pacific season after a nasty cleanout from Wallabies lock Darcy Swain during a Bledisloe Cup encounter in Melbourne in September 2022. Although the 24-year-old returned for Waikato in the NPC just before the Rugby World Cup, it was too little, too late.
Tupaea made his All Blacks debut in 2021 after impressing for the Chiefs and gathered 14 caps as he established himself as a regular in Ian Foster’s squad. Getting back in won’t be easy though. As well as the experienced, versatile pair of Jordie Barrett and Anton Lienert-Brown, others such as Dallas McLeod and Harry Plummer are ready to put their hand up for a congested second five battle, with the Crusaders’ McLeod making his test debut against the Wallabies last August.
Competition: Harry Plummer (Blues), Anton Lienert-Brown (Chiefs), Dallas McLeod (Crusaders), Jordie Barrett (Hurricanes)
Although Dane Coles’ retirement was delayed by his unexpected signing for Kubota in Japan late last year, he won’t be back for the All Blacks, meaning at least one place is up for grabs alongside Codie Taylor and Samisoni Taukei’aho. Near the front of the queue will be six-cap Hurricane Asafo Aumua.
The 26-year-old made his debut in 2020 but fell down the pecking order with the emergence of Chiefs star Taukei’aho. With Hurricanes teammate Coles departing, he - in a similar way to Fakatava at the Highlanders - has a huge opportunity to replace a great All Black for both his Super team and his country. Hurricanes head coach Clark Laidlaw has named Aumua as one of his two vice-captains and will be hoping he can add a bit more consistency to the undoubted pace and power that has caused havoc for so many opponents.
Competition: Samisoni Taukei’aho, Tyrone Thompson (Chiefs), Codie Taylor, Brodie McAlister (Crusaders)
The 57-cap loosehead prop was quick to tell Ian Foster, and in due course the rugby public, that he would be ready for the opening round of the Rugby World Cup, but the selectors didn’t agree.
Despite now being 35, Moody still feels he has plenty to give to the black jersey and will be giving his all to get into Robertson’s first squad. If there’s anyone that knows Moody’s qualities, it’s Robertson and All Blacks forwards coach Jason Ryan, so they will put his age to one side and any recall will come down to how his form stacks up against the incumbents, and if he can stave off the challenge of any new kids on the block. But depth in the position is starting to build, so Moody will have his work cut out in 2024.
Competition: Ofa Tu’ungafasi (Blues), Ollie Norris (Chiefs), George Bower, Tamati Williams (Crusaders), Ethan de Groot (Highlanders)
This article was first published on nzherald.co.nz and is republished here with permission
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