Updated: Jan 24
Written by Max Sharp.
The All Blacks' midfield could have a strong amount of promise ahead of 2023. This is entirely dependent on Ian Foster getting things right though.
This article will go over the second-five (inside centre) first, as this jersey is in a far more concerning situation than the outside centre jersey.
The All Blacks' Second-Five Depth Chart from 2020-21.
Foster capped six players at 12 during the 2020 season, leaving the then-depth chart looking very colourful, which is a dire situation in comparison to depth charts for the All Blacks such as the props and hooker. What made things worse with 2020, was that Jack Goodhue, clearly a specialist 13, was named to start by Foster in the vast majority of the minutes available, whereas Ngani Laumape, now based at Stade Français, was the only other player to start in the jersey in 2020.
David Havili, was the answer to the issues with 12. After four years' absence from test rugby, the Crusader reinvented himself as a 12, moving there from 15, with Scott Robertson wanting to be able to have both his vice-captain (Havili) and Will Jordan in the starting lineup. While Havili has not re-gained enough muscle to be used in outdated crash-ball running centre tactics, he played a staggering 737 minutes at test level in 2021, 710 of which were at 12.
While fans and critics alike, namely the UK-based RugbyAnalyst, a YouTuber with a respectable 10,000 subscribers, have called for Havili to be axed from the All Blacks, the issues lie with Foster's tactics, rather than Havili's faults as a player. Havili's passing and kicking game, alongside a solid tackle percentage, easily overshadow his poor performance against France, whereas on a statistical level, he was the second-to-best All Black against Ireland, ranking second for tackles made and metres run amongst the backs, despite only playing 42 minutes off the bench.
Quinn Tupaea made his test debut in 2021, after improving vastly over the off-season. With his Chiefs teammate Anton Lienert-Brown only playing 71 minutes at 12 since Foster became the All Blacks Coach, this gave Tupaea valuable time to improve his game. This time on the pitch was including the match-winning turnover against South Africa, even though Tupaea was playing at left wing off the bench.
Tupaea has a different skillset to Havili, it's a no brainer which of them you would use as a crash-ball runner. But as the images displayed showcase, Tupaea's decision-making is still raw.
When moving to 13 against Italy, he looked far more comfortable in combination with Havili, who came off the bench to be a more experienced midfield partner for Tupaea. Although Tupaea still has much work to do, he will only get better, this will be worrying for Jack Goodhue, who may not be able to get a re-call in the black jersey. Foster will need to find a third specialist second-five during the 2022 season.
Even more worrying for Goodhue, is that he has yet to play any minutes at 13 under Foster as the Head Coach. As displayed by the depth chart, only five players have done so, in comparison to the nine who have featured at 12 thus far in the World Cup cycle.
The All Blacks' Outside Centre Depth Chart from 2020-21.
Although this is the case, the 13 jersey may indeed have a depth chart which looks very different in 2023. Braydon Ennor, who burst onto the scene during 2018 and 2019, scoring tries for fun with the Crusaders, may be one of the unfortunate rugby players with a career tainted by injury. Ennor, after a debut aged 22, now only has four test caps aged 24. Ennor's injuries, including two torn ACLs since the age of 18, appears to have lost some of his pace.
What Ennor possibly needs is a simple case of getting enough regular game-time. He only played 25 minutes off the bench during the Rugby Championship and although he was very much a star performer in Washington DC, against the USA, his performance against Italy was poor. If memory serves me correct, he made three knock-ons in the first half, which lead to early substitution. Quinn Tupaea is far superior at 12 to 13, so if Ennor fails to fire in 2022, expect a re-call for Peter Umaga-Jensen this season; he already has minutes on the depth chart.
With Anton Lienert-Brown and Rieko Ioane, it goes without saying that they are amongst the best players in the nation. Ioane, after being put down by fans for many months (pun intended), was able to finally prove against France that he is indeed a centre. After two seasons in the position, he will in 2022, be too far-gone to make a permanent return to wing.
Rieko Ioane warming up for the Blues.
Photo: Max Sharp.
At only 24 years old, Ioane has amassed 31 tries from 47 tests. Although he has sacrificed his try-scoring rate (5 tries from 13 tests in 2021), this move to centre has undoubtedly prolonged his career. If anyone is to break Doug Howlett's all-time record for the All Blacks, surely it will be Rieko Ioane, who has played a total of 1188 minutes (from 1680 minutes available) under Foster as the Head Coach. Ioane has played the most minutes for Foster of any player, which means his selection for 2022 and 2023 are an absolute certainty barring injury.
While Ioane has had a massive resurgence in form, Lienert-Brown remains the solid, experienced backline player, who never has a bad game. The 26-year-old Chief is almost certain to captain either his club or country in the years to come, having reached 56 tests. While his 2021 campaign was heavily disrupted by injuries, the veteran's passing is still a potent threat for the All Blacks, he has to remain at 13 so the team can have him as wide as possible, he's a prefect dummy runner to enable wingers outside him.
Anton Lienert-Brown's test debut, Wellington, 2016. Photo: Max Sharp.
Lienert-Brown's skillsets complimented Havili's far better than Ioane's in 2021, as many say, Lienert-Brown is almost the perfect hybrid of a crash-ball running centre and a passing centre. The Havili and Lienert-Brown combination proved to be the most effective and the midfield's 2021 season grade has suffered from Foster chopping and changing the midfield combo too much, rather than sticking with Havili, the clear-cut best 12, and Lienert-Brown, a young man with a surprising amount of experience. Ioane's versatility makes him a perfect impact player past the 60-minute mark.
Foster needs to balance the backline correctly, while he is far too stubborn to remove the crash-ball running tactic from the backline's arsenal. Perhaps a re-call for Caleb Clarke, a strong power winger, will be the catalyst to free up the midfield to enable the backs.
Midfielders Grade for 2021: C+