It used to be an area with an embarrassment of riches for New Zealand, with powerful, dashing wings, dominant throughout Super Rugby. But with less than six months until Rugby World Cup and with the news of Sevu Reece’s year ending injury, Ian Foster’s cupboard is looking, if not exactly bare, at least a little unfamiliar.
By the end of 2022 Sevu Reece wasn’t a starting All Blacks wing, with Blues duo Mark Telea and Caleb Clarke preferred for the final, drawn test of the year at Twickenham. Reece was, though, a regular squad member, having started 21 of his 23 tests since breaking into the 2019 World Cup squad with former Crusaders team mate George Bridge.
While he is nearing a return Will Jordan is yet to be sighted on the field since last September’s victory over the Wallabies due to a migraine-related condition. Fitness and form permitting, Jordan will be favoured to claim the starting wing role alongside Clarke for the World Cup.
Telea’s consistent form on the edge for the Blues continues to push for the starting All Blacks jersey, too. Even with Clarke, Jordan and Telea locked in, Reece’s absence leaves the fourth berth contestable.
New Zealand rugby isn’t, now at least, blessed with standout, test ready wing options. There are, however, two clear contenders to fill Reece’s void in the form of Crusaders left wing Leicester Fainga’anuku and Chiefs fullback Shaun Stevenson.
Fainga’anuku started the first two tests against Ireland last year before falling out of favour and then returning home from Japan for family reasons to miss the northern tour.
This year Fainga’anuku has returned with vengeance to send a message to the national selectors by proving his finishing and destructive qualities by claiming seven tries in his last four games, including a hat-trick against in the victory against the Blues at Eden Park, at a time when the Crusaders have been down on troops and far from their best. The try against the Blues, where he regathered an audacious Richie Mo’unga cross-field kick to fend off Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, is one of many highlights this season.
Fainga’anuku’s ball carrying strength offers a point of difference for the All Blacks to counter rush defensive systems and his ability to cover centre also presents value.
Stevenson is the other compelling alternative. Joint Super Rugby try-scoring leader with Fainga’anuku’s and Reds utility Jordan Petaia, Stevenson is savouring a breakout season.
While he’s shaken his inconsistency to make his mark from fullback with nine line breaks for the Chiefs, in their unblemished six-from-six pace-setting start to the season, Stevenson has previously featured regularly on the wing where his height and long levers can be utilised.
Whether he could replicate the same timing into the line, on one of those gliding, near untouchable runs, from the wing remains to be seen.
Stevenson’s form has steadily built from North Harbour to the All Blacks XV on their northern tour, where he claimed two tries against Ireland A in Dublin, and onto the Chiefs. He was notably quiet in the victory over the Blues, though, and needs to retain his impact through the finals when the All Blacks selectors take most interest.
Damian McKenzie or Stephen Perofeta?
Four doesn’t go into three. With Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett assured World Cup selection, McKenzie and Perofeta are contesting one, final All Blacks playmaking position.
McKenzie’s return to first five-eighth – after starting at fullback for his 100th Super Rugby match in the scrappy win over the Waratahs – underlined his influence this season as he clearly upstaged Barrett in the battle of the No 10s in Hamilton last week.
Such a performance was a continuation for McKenzie rather than a one-off. The struggles to immediately regain his best form after returning from Japan last year are firmly behind McKenzie – to the point that, on form, he is impossible to overlook for the World Cup.
After being used scarcely in his debut test season, starting once at fullback against Japan in Tokyo, Perofeta has, conversely, offered glimpses of his best this season.
First-five is Profeta’s natural position. It’s from there he produced this year’s best display by challenging the line, sparking the Blues attack, against the Force.
Barrett’s presence, however, leaves Profeta largely consigned to the backfield which, as the season progresses, may hinder the ability to state his World Cup case.
Halfback back ups
Competition to fill Aaron Smith’s deputy roles remains fierce.
As last year progressed the All Blacks rotated Finlay Christie, Folau Fakatava, Brad Weber and TJ Perenara through the No. 9 jersey.
Unless injury strikes there will be no unseating centurion Smith but the Super Rugby season is an audition for others to stake their claims.
With Brad Weber reinforcing his credentials at the unbeaten Chiefs, Finlay Christie performing strongly for the Blues, Folau Fakatava attempting his comeback with the Highlanders, Cam Roigard underlining his dynamic qualities with the Hurricanes and TJ Perenara pushing for a return, All Blacks coach Ian Foster faces a difficult conundrum whittling down to three halfbacks.
While Christie and Weber will be favoured to join Smith for the trip to France, that combination leaves the All Blacks with a degree of sameness at nine.
Sam Cane revival
Dalton Papalii left a major impression in his three starts for the All Blacks at the backend of last year. Sam Cane departed the All Blacks northern tour in Japan, following a broken cheekbone, to open the door for Papalii. The Blues captain seized that chance by imposing his rangy, physical presence on Wales, Scotland and England to prove he belongs in the test arena.
Papalii’s performances reignited debate about whether Cane should retain the All Blacks captaincy – assumed by Sam Whitelock in his absence – or make way for the young bull. After enduring a taxing 2022 while fronting the All Blacks struggles, Cane has clearly sensed Papalii’s pressure and has responded in the early Super Rugby rounds to make up lost ground.
Foster is loyal to a fault so a change in captaincy months before the World Cup would surprise. He will, therefore, be heartened by Cane’s form revival.
Minimal movement on this front, with contenders Ethan Blackadder, Akira Ioane and Cullen Grace all out injured but the squeeze is coming.
Shannon Frizell and Scott Barrett are the incumbent All Blacks blindside flankers but after returning from a long injury layoff, Blackadder impressed through his work-rate and dominant carries before suffering a calf complaint two weeks ago.
If Blackadder’s body holds together he seems certain to force his way into the World Cup squad. With Blues No 8 Hoskins Sotutu heeding calls to adopt more physicality, Ioane is in danger of losing his place in the loose forward mix.