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2022 End-of-Season Review: Halfbacks & First-Fives

An incredibly up-and-down season for the All Blacks has lead to a big range of ratings on the 1 to 10 scale for the halves, while the combination-building ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France, has been very smartly done under-the-radar, by the All Blacks' selectors. The lack of players on these depth charts at 9 and 10 may be scary, but the combination-building could be lethal, should the remaining players all avoid injury.

With six players getting minutes at halfback and three at first-five in 2022, Ian Foster has now finished the season with a clearly-defined pecking order in his team's key decision-making jerseys, after these positions were perhaps a bit unclear at the end of 2021.

There is plenty to say about the players in these jerseys now that we've, so let's count through and rate their individual efforts for 2022. Merry Christmas whānau.

The All Blacks' 2020-22 Halfback Depth Chart.

Halfback Season Reviews

Aaron Smith (721 minutes played) - 4/10

Smith's game fluctuated heavily throughout the season after a sub-par Super Rugby season proved that yes, he's indeed on his way out. Two of Smith's four worst-ever performances in a black jersey occurred back-to-back, as the team succumbed in defeat to Ireland in Wellington and South Africa in Mbobela.

We also saw plenty of flashes of the form that made Smith so famous to begin with though, particularly as he lit up Principality Stadium, scoring a double against Wales while becoming the All Blacks' most-capped ever back.

Taking a near-50% share of the halfback depth chart is perhaps a bit excessive for the one-time All Black captain, though playing 12/13 of the team's tests in 2022, was likely a matter of balancing out his share of the chart; TJ Perenara did not get injured until November. Smith may have been sub-par this season, but after watching him thrive under quicker ruck speed from the forwards, this was perhaps Smith conserving energy to go out with a bang in 2023, when he is set to retire.

Finlay Christie (232 minutes played) - 6/10

It's not exactly the most hopeful thing to see the second-choice halfback get such a small amount of game time, but Christie has definitely received some complimentary perks of Joe Schmidt's Blues bias. With Smith and Mo'unga leading the depth charts for their jerseys at the time of Joe Schmidt's arrival as a selector, Schmidt has a clear plan, to use the lot of the Blues' spine, as the second-choice options in their jerseys.

Finlay Christie, then uncapped, warms up for the Blues in 2021. Photo: Max Sharp.

While some are also worried about Christie's ability to command the pack, they must remember that he has started in the 9 jersey just three times at test level. He was indeed poor against Japan and sub-par against his native Scotland, but as he begins to click more with Hoskins Sotutu and Beauden Barrett at club level, we can expect improvement.

One final thing to take into context, is that Christie has recently turned 27. Now that he's got a taste of the international stage, the last step is to recapture Super Rugby form, at the highest level.

Folau Fakatava (37 minutes played) - 7/10

While World Rugby announced in 2020, that they would increase a player's stand-down period to a five-year residency (this residency period's first day is a player's 18th birthday should they not represent their adopted country at schoolboy level), for eligibility for an overseas team, Ian Foster was able to force World Rugby's hand and get Fakatava an exemption.

A bitterweet test debut to his home crowd in Dunedin, as well as a loss in Wellington, made up Fakatava's now-invalid 37 minutes of test rugby disappointing for viewers, but Fakatava will be stoked himself. While he will miss the 2023 Rugby World Cup due to a swelling in his ACL graft, a previous injury, it's been made clear that Fakatava is the future of the 9 jersey.

He played well in the few minutes he received, while Foster was able to get exemption to pick Fakatava, on the basis that he'd have indeed been selected in 2021, had he not originally injured his ACL. Considering the gravity of this exception call-up, Fakatava now has the world at his feet.

TJ Perenara (36 minutes played) - No rating

Many have discussed the 2022 season, that TJ Perenara had. The 30-year-old Hurricane won plenty of trophies at club level and captained the Māori All Blacks, but after playing the full 80 against Ireland on the 2021 end-of-year tour, then not being selected for France just one week later after Brad Weber returned from injury, made it clear to me that Perenara's test career was likely at its end.

TJ Perenara (9) runs to the tryline after intercepting a pass from the Chiefs at Sky Stadium, Wellington, in 2022. Photo: Max Sharp.

While his test career wasn't over at that stage, it certainly is now. Perenara was substituted at Twickenham against England with a minute left to go, having torn his achilles; this will have him sidelined until September at the earliest.

The nature of an achilles tendon tear has damaged several players before and with Cam Roigard, a 22-year-old All Blacks XV selection, set to play massive minutes in Perenara's absence for the Hurricanes, his share of the halfback depth chart is now invalid due to injury.

Brad Weber (13 minutes played) - No rating

The Chiefs captain will be disappointed with a mere 13 minutes off the bench against Wales for his 2022 test season, but reminds us all that he's still firmly on the radar. In a similar situation to Christie, Weber has a high likelihood of making the 2023 Rugby World Cup; Ian Foster's third-choice spine, is now made up entirely of Chiefs players, aside from Dane Coles at hooker.

Brad Weber, pictured warming up for the Chiefs in 2022. Photo: Max Sharp.

If he can keep fit as an older athlete, Weber's club-level cohesion with Damian McKenzie and Luke Jacobson, an injury cover option, will give a strong third-choice spine, in sync with Joe Schmidt's plan that also applied to Blues players.

While Weber was forced into minimal minutes in black this year, to give Christie his place as second on the halfback depth chart, 2022 will have ultimately worked to Weber's long-term benefit, as the fourth player on the depth chart, David Havili, is actually a centre.

The All Blacks' 2020-2022 First-Five Depth Chart.

First-Five Season Reviews

Richie Mo'unga (702 minutes played) - 8/10

Mo'unga didn't quite reach the same heights in 2022 as he did in 2021; having played the first four tests of the season off the bench. Joe Schmidt eventually forced Foster to finally axe props and restore Mo'unga to 10 due to his larger share of the depth chart, but the Mo'unga situation is starting to look eerily similar to the Dan Carter one from 2011.

Richie Mo'unga calls for a pick-and-go at Eden Park against Ireland. Photo: Max Sharp.

Carter missed the 2011 Rugby World Cup knockout stages due to injury, after commanding a 62% share of Graham Henry's first-five depth chart from 2008 until that time; while Mo'unga, who has played massive minutes since 2020, has a near-60% share himself.

While Mo'unga probably kicked away too much possession for the All Blacks in 2022, his tactical command over the team has become near-peerless, especially with Aaron Smith liberated from the fact that the All Blacks will no longer play off 9 for an entire test. If Mo'unga, who is probably due for an injury soon, does indeed get one, the World Cup chances go with him.

Beauden Barrett (652 minutes played) - 5/10

Bought his strong ball handling and experience to the black jersey as usual, but paid the price for poor game management as the axe was swung after Mbobela; though Barrett may not have started anyway due to a sore neck from a collision leading to Kurt-Lee Arendse's red card for South Africa.

After three straight tests as a replacement, Barrett was restored back to the starting XV, with the context of The Rugby Championship working in his favour; David Havili, Quinn Tupaea and Jack Goodhue were all injured for the final round. Barrett's restoration to the first-choice lineup came with his brother Jordie moving to 12.

Damian McKenzie's omission from the end-of-year tests also assisted Barrett's hopes to make a third Rugby World Cup. Barrett got another two starts at 15, with his brother at 12 again, so that depth could be re-built at 12, while Barrett now commands the second-to-largest share of two jerseys. Performance-wise, not good, but experience-wise, he's crucial. My Barrett-Mo'unga analysis videos aged well.

An analysis video comparing Barrett and Mo'unga from May 2022, published to The Black Jersey on YouTube.

Stephen Perofeta (83 minutes played) - 3/10

The All Blacks' management's treatment of Perofeta was disgusting. As a winner of the 2021 Duane Monkley Medal and Super Rugby's leading points-scorer for 2022, Perofeta's debut coming in the All Blacks' sixth of 13 tests in 2022, was surprising. This was especially as his promise had been evident for some time, many will be able to look back on his destruction of the 2017 British and Irish Lions.

The worst part of it all though, was that Perofeta did not come on against Argentina until there was a minute left, receiving the shortest-ever All Black test debut; not even touching the ball during the match. While his second test was a start, where we saw Perofeta run 50 metres in 80 minutes, injury to Will Jordan forced him to play fullback against Japan.

Perofeta's third test then saw him play just two minutes against Scotland. It is clear that for whatever reason, Foster and company don't trust Perofeta at test level, though he should have more than earned it at 25 years old. Look for the axe to swing, with Perofeta undeservedly dropped in 2023.

Damian McKenzie (did not play) - No rating

McKenzie did not play after being drafted into the team as injury cover, so did not add to his tally of 40 test caps. McKenzie was not initially eligible for the All Blacks in 2022, as a then-22-year-old McKenzie, signed a four-year deal to 2021, back in 2017. McKenzie re-gained eligibility for the end-of-year tour after returning home from a single-season deal in Japan.

As he is now 27 years old, he is now losing pace, so has been very smartly moving to the 10 jersey under-the-radar. Having worn the jersey for Tokyo Sungoliath, McKenzie did the same for the All Blacks XV so that Mo'unga could re-learn his cohesion from the 2016 Canterbury team with Jordie Barrett at test level.

McKenzie's game management is finally improving, while he has played 116 minutes at 10 for Ian Foster; also taking the third place on the fullback depth chart, in the same way that Beauden Barrett is second on both the 10 and 15 charts. With this depth being built very smartly under-the-radar, McKenzie can expect a re-call in 2023.

Halves Season Rating: 5/10

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