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2021 Season Review - Outside Backs

Updated: Jan 24, 2022

Written by Max Sharp.

If there's a singular thing that the All Blacks are known for, it's the seemingly infinite supply of classy outside backs. This has gone on for 100 years, starting with the debut of George Nēpia in 1924, to the well-known Bernie Frasers, Don Clarkes, Jonah Lomus and John Kirwans of the late 20th century, to the likes of Ben Smith, Joe Rokocoko and Julian Savea, all blistering try-scorers in the last few decades.

The All Blacks' Left Wing Depth Chart from 2020-21.

In the number 11 jersey made famous by Lomu, there are three current All Blacks who have spent a significant portion of game time in the jersey. Although Rieko Ioane has well and truly made the transition to centre since 2020, he has still had game time at left wing for the All Blacks, a jersey some people still believe him to be the best in. Ioane's transition to 13 has allowed for George Bridge, at 26 years old, to play almost 40% of the minutes avaliable at 11, throughout this World Cup cycle.

Bridge has the pace to remain on the wing, even after some recent injury struggles, but has recently came under scrutiny after struggles under the high ball against South Africa; the setting Australian sun was facing the direction of the All Blacks' faces in the first half. The Gisborne-born winger has also had a falling try-scoring rate in 2021, with only 3 tries from 9 tests. With the impending return of Caleb Clarke, who was not selected in 2021 due to his presence at the Tokyo Olympics, as well as the rapid rise of Leicester Fainga'anuku, Bridge may have already played his last test. This would be a rather cruel situation for him, especially if Sevu Reece continues to play minutes at left wing. While Bridge would start for any other nation, perhaps barring Fiji or England, being dropped out not indicate a lack of skill for Bridge, he would just become yet another victim of New Zealand's endless production line of wingers.

Caleb Clarke (11) celebrates a try for the Blues, 2021. Photo: Max Sharp.

Clarke, although clearly a winger, would solve problems in midfield if re-called. Running a crash-ball runner out wider, would benefit Ian Foster on a tactical level, a power winger would make far more metres than this style of play being run from 12 or 13. Clarke's re-call would not shake up the depth chart too much, he already has 18% of the chart to himself, with 303 minutes. If Clarke is unavailable due to injury, expect a call-up for Leicester Fainga'anuku, at long last.

The All Blacks' Right Wing Depth Chart from 2020-21.

While Will Jordan, World Rugby's Breakthrough Player of the Year for 2021, plays fullback for the Crusaders, he has yet to register a single minute at 15 for the All Blacks. He has been near-exclusively used at right wing by Ian Foster, who has opted to use his instinct for space wider. It's worked to perfection, Jordan is the second-to-fastest All Black behind Rieko Ioane; who is unlikely to play many more minutes at 14, while Jordan also knows exactly how to chip-kick and run his support lines. Jordan will be certain to be taken to the Rugby World Cup in 2023, I have however, remained calm about the possibility of him breaking Doug Howlett's try-scoring record, wingers have very short careers in New Zealand.

Will Jordan at Westpac Stadium with the Crusaders, 2019. Photo: Max Sharp.

Jordie Barrett played the majority of the minutes available at 14 in 2020, but only played 57 minutes there in 2021, with Sevu Reece overcoming his second-year syndrome. The 24-year-old remained a regular starter in 2021, starting in 8 of his 9 tests, despite losing the first-choice status to Jordan.

A baby-faced Max Sharp meets Sevu Reece, 2019 (right).

Reece may be an option for jersey 23 going forward, should, God forbid, injury affects Rieko Ioane. He worked some magic wearing that jersey against Wales, scoring his most impressive of his 9 tries for 2021. This saw Reece score the second-to-most tries of any All Black in 2021, behind Will Jordan's 15 tries. Although wingers in New Zealand have incredibly short careers (only 12 specialist All Black outside backs have surpassed 50 tests), Reece is likely to buck the trend of this, he may indeed be one of few All Black wingers to feature at two World Cups.

The All Blacks' Fullback Depth Chart from 2020-21.

While depth charts for the 11 and 14 jerseys don't really mean anything; outside backs change with the blink of an eye, getting the chart right at 15 is far more important. Wingers are not decision-makers in rugby at all, they just need to be able to beat defenders easily and have pin-point catching, in order to finish tries off for their team.

Fullback, as part of the team's spine, is a role where a player is one of the main decision-makers in the team. Little over a year ago, Jordie Barrett, the All Blacks' top points-scorer for 2021, did not look ready whatsoever to be a main decision-maker of the All Blacks' spine. Blunders in Super Rugby and against South Africa, in 2018, come to mind especially.

But when Ardie Savea was injured in 2021, the Hurricanes were effectively leaderless. This effectively gave Jordie Barrett the opportunity to step out of the shadows of his big brothers; Beauden and Scott have been of huge importance to the All Blacks for well over half a decade. Jordie Barrett became the Hurricanes' crutch, they relied on him to compete in every game.

Damian McKenzie started the season off as the first-choice fullback for the All Blacks, while Beauden Barrett was featuring off the bench. The elder Barrett is unlikely to play many more minutes at 15 for Foster, he has made it clear that he wants to be the 10. McKenzie, despite being nothing short of a game-winner for the Chiefs, does not appear to have improved at all since he began his professional career (the exception being his tackle percentage). Although McKenzie is blessed as perhaps the most naturally gifted player in World Rugby, Barrett has overtaken him by leaps and bounds.

Barrett, after being a perennial choker, has finally developed into the all-round player we all knew he could be, with the mental toughness to compliment these skills. His power-running, stepping, pace, communication skills, analysis of opposition tactics, tackling, reading of space, tactical kicking and goal-kicking, are now all world class. Jordie Barrett has become a far to superior player to what Scott or Beauden were or will ever be. At 24 years old, he will only get better.

A thing of the past? Jordie Barrett at wing for the Hurricanes, 2019. Photo: Max Sharp.

New Zealand's production line of wingers will forever provide endless debate, at least 10 in the nation are good enough to be All Blacks, so no matter what happens, we will be okay in the 11 and 14 jerseys. But the revelation of Jordie Barrett's indispensability has forced my rating for the outside backs' performances in 2021 to go up a notch.

Outside Backs Grade for 2021: A+

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