Written by Max Sharp.
Ian Foster has now named his final All Blacks squad for 2022, as they prepare to play against Japan, Wales, Scotland and England in the following order, to complete an underwhelming season less than a year away from the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
With some returning players and some exiting players, we'll take a look at the players who have made the best gains and the worst losses based on Foster's selections for the 35-man squad, as he looks to return the All Blacks to the world-beaters of the 2010s.
Position: Number 8
Age: 24 years old
Caps: 12 tests
Clubs: Blues & Counties Manukau Steelers
Foster has selected a 35-man squad, that's just two more players than what World Rugby will permit next year. With six loose forwards, four locks, five midfielders and five outside backs in the current squad, it will likely be the loose forwards, midfielders or outside backs left as the positions facing the chop ahead of 2023.
Sotutu has played all 538 of his minutes in test rugby, exclusively at number 8; many journalists have speculated that Sotutu could face the axe ahead of 2023 due to the fact that he is a specialist in this position; Sotutu has played just two tests during the 2022 season, with utilities such as Scott Barrett and Akira Ioane preferred as options off the bench.
However, when push has come to shove, Sotutu has earned Foster's faith, starting in the jersey in the single match where Savea was unavailable due to parental leave. Foster's selection of Sotutu for the end-of-year tour makes it clear that he wishes for Sotutu to get more game time before the season concludes; perhaps a start against Japan and Scotland, or coming off the bench against England would be the best way to end Sotutu's year.
Position: Second-Five & Centre
Age: 27 years old
Caps: 56 tests
Clubs: Chiefs & Waikato Mooloos
Though many have fumed at Lienert-Brown returning to the All Blacks after just 46 minutes in the quarter-final where Waikato were defeated by Bay of Plenty at FMG Stadium, his return is crucial. Quinn Tupaea's ACL surgery was a follow-up to Jack Goodhue needing another surgery on his own ACL; Goodhue had torn his in 2021. These injuries to Tupaea and Goodhue mean their share of the second-five depth chart are now invalid as they are almost certain to miss the 2023 Rugby World Cup due to injury.
Anton Lienert-Brown on his way to score a try for the Chiefs. Photo: Max Sharp.
Lienert-Brown's return from a shoulder injury has been his first serious injury as a professional athlete and this seems to have allowed him to return refreshed. Though he will likely sit on the bench during this end-of-year tour due to a lack of game time, this will likely be his role for 2023 so not to disrupt the cohesion built between David Havili and Rieko Ioane as the starting combo, especially considering Havili's long-standing teamwork with Richie Mo'unga.
With a dynamic crash-ball running game, world-class vision, a short-range kicking game, ferocious defence and a know-how on when and when not to pass, Lienert-Brown is being rewarded for his experience and the fact that he was on his way back to his very best form prior to his shoulder injury. This bloke is certain to attend 2023, so his selection was a must-have, so that he'll have a reference point for the standard he'll need to reach in his mission towards a full recovery.
Position: First-Five & Fullback
Age: 25 years old
Caps: 1 test
Clubs: Blues & Taranaki Bulls
Super Rugby Pacific's leading point-scorer of 2022 played just a single minute of his test debut at fullback and did not touch the ball, which was severely disappointing. Many suspected that those finding game time hard to get under Foster, would be released to Leon MacDonald's All Blacks XV, but this is not the case for Perofeta.
Selection for the end-of-year tour proves that Foster indeed considers Perofeta good enough to be the third-choice 10, but that circumstances have been the driving force for Perofeta's insultingly short test debut. Foster may not be the greatest coach, but he is a master of optimistic thinking. On 9th June 2018, Eddie Jones started a then-20-year-old Nick Isiekwe against South Africa in just his third cap, but after a poor performance, Isiekwe was substituted in just the 35th minute. Though this was the correct decision for the game, it was a move that broke Isiekwe's confidence due to his inexperience and seemingly hasn't been recovered from.
After a 1-minute test debut, dropping Perofeta would have done even worse mental damage to that of Isiekwe and Foster has clearly examined his 10 depth chart, knowing that he cannot afford to turn to an inexperienced player in 2023, should Mo'unga get injured. With Mo'unga ranked first with 1396 minutes, Beauden Barrett at 888 minutes and Damian McKenzie with 116 minutes at 10 for Foster, it is now or never for blooding Perofeta as a genuine back-up 10 for Mo'unga, otherwise Foster will be turning to either a fullback, or an uncapped player as the next 10.
Position: Winger & Centre
Age: 22 years old
Caps: 2 tests
Clubs: Crusaders & Tasman Mako
While the young gun hasn't quite lived up to the hype, perhaps Foster has learned from the mistake of an inexperienced Sevu Reece facing England in the 2019 Rugby World Cup. With Braydon Ennor commanding very few minutes at 13 for Foster as well, perhaps Fainga'anuku is seen as the fourth-choice centre?
Caleb Clarke is definitely the first-choice left wing and he's done brilliantly beating defenders with ball-in-hand, while his size as also allowed him to clear rucks out wide when forwards are carrying. Fainga'anuku is 2kg heavier than Clarke, as well as 4cm taller, making him a like-for-like replacement when it comes to the aforementioned attacking tactics.
Leicester Fainga'anuku warms up for the All Blacks ahead of a test. Photo: Max Sharp.
Despite a highly disappointing second test match in which he was lucky to avoid a red card, Fainga'anuku is still seen as a valuable investment by Foster and fairly so, he's looked very good on attack when released for Tasman in 2022. Perhaps his time spent on the sidelines with the All Blacks has seen him practicing his work under the high ball as well?
Position: Centre & Winger
Age: 25 years old
Caps: 5 tests
Clubs: Crusaders & Canterbury Rugby
As the current pecking order stands, David Havili (12) and Rieko Ioane (13) are the first-choice midfield combo, while Anton Lienert-Brown is likely the second-choice for both jerseys now that Tupaea and Goodhue are injured; while Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (12) and Ennor (13) appear the third-choice for their respective jerseys. This isn't too shabby when you consider Ennor wasn't initially in the team at the start of 2022.
Braydon Ennor (23) communicates with halfback Finlay Christie against Ireland at Eden Park. Photo: Max Sharp.
Despite a horror run of injuries hampering his pace to the point where it has all been lost, Ennor was rewarded for defensive improvements, with a 13-minute cameo off the bench at Eden Park when Rieko Ioane was substituted against Ireland. While the uncapped Bailyn Sullivan is far quicker, Ennor must be, in Foster's eyes, the closest like-for-like replacement for Rieko Ioane, the most important player of the Foster era (thanks to Ioane having played more minutes of test rugby than any individual for Foster).
With one more chance to prove himself at test level ahead of the most important event of Foster's coaching career, a start against Japan would provide Ennor with a golden opportunity to build a combination with Tuivasa-Sheck at 12.
Age: 29 years old
Caps: 42 tests
Clubs: Blues & Auckland Rugby
While Foster never officially named a vice-captain for the 2020 season, it appeared to be Tuipulotu who was filling those boots, he was the bloke always fronting the media, joining Sam Came to be welcoming the new caps and of course, being a beast on the pitch.
Ever since overcoming a run of injuries, including one that forced him to miss the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Tuipulotu has proven himself in black, time-and-time again, ever since his 2018 return with a hat-trick against Tasman, to end Luke Romano's test career. Every time the media attempted to put pressure on this man down in the pecking order, he would deliver, even in an ill-fated loss to England in 2019.
Analysis on the All Blacks' locks, as uploaded to The Black Jersey on YouTube in April 2022.
However, this has all changed. While Beauden Barrett and Brodie Retallick's contract extensions through to 2023 allowed them to enjoy sabbaticals in Japan and then walk straight back into Foster's starting XV, but Tuipulotu, despite signing a deal to 2025 which included a sabbatical, has not been afforded this same luxury after returning from Japan. Either Ian Foster has asked Leon MacDonald, the Blues coach, to have Tuipulotu captain the All Blacks XV, or Tuipulotu's test career is over, with Tupou Vaa'i now overtaking his childhood idol in the pecking order.
Position: Utility Back
Age: 27 years old
Caps: 40 tests
Clubs: Chiefs & Waikato Mooloos
While Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Beauden Barrett and Patrick Tuipulotu all headed to play in Japan with sabbatical clauses in long-term contracts, McKenzie did not do the same and he has seemingly paid the price for this. In 2017, a then-22-year-old McKenzie was signed through to 2021 after earning his first two test caps. He then joined Tokyo Sungoliath on a single-season deal before signing for the Chiefs, Waikato and NZ Rugby to the end of 2023.
While McKenzie was not eligible for The Rugby Championship due to his new deal, he is now eligible for the All Blacks again, but has been left on the outer. Ranking 17th for metres run, 26th for carries, 3rd for defenders beaten, 24th for clean breaks, 19th for offloads and 2nd for points scored in the Bunnings NPC, many feel angry that McKenzie wasn't picked. But however, has McKenzie actually improved since his test debut in 2016?
Foster knows exactly what he's going to get from McKenzie and with Beauden Barrett just 95 minutes behind McKenzie on Foster's fullback depth chart, perhaps there is only room for one game-breaker off the bench to set the world alight off the bench in Foster's team. If so, this may be a bitter pill to swallow for many; 22 outside backs have attended a World Cup for the All Blacks in the professional era and out of them, the average player played their last test at 27. Though this list includes Beauden Barrett and Sevu Reece who are still playing, this lists odds do not favour McKenzie, especially as Foster values loyalty.
Position: Tighthead Prop
Age: 32 years old
Caps: 22 tests
Clubs: Chiefs & Auckland Rugby
After a brutal blow to the head in Auckland's first half against North Harbour, in the NPC quarter-finals, Ta'avao had to be taken off in a stretcher after lying on the ground for around 15 minutes. His injury's official diagnosis has yet to be publicly released as of the time this article is being written, yet Foster has snubbed him for 22-year-old Fletcher Newell anyway.
Ta'avao at the Chiefs' captains run before facing the Brumbies. Photo: Max Sharp.
Debuting aged 28 years old in 2018 saw Ta'avao play in the World Cup one year later and though he missed the 2020 tests due to injury and instead captained Auckland for the season, Ta'avao earned a re-call for 2021. Picked over Tyrel Lomax initially for this season, Ta'avao went on to get concussed while earning himself a red card in the second test against Ireland. In his return, against South Africa this year, Ta'avao sadly had a poor performance.
With far quicker ruck speed needed from props at test level, some of the old heads were always going to make way for new blood ahead of 2023, Lomax has done so, becoming a regular starter, while Newell was picked over Ta'avao for four tests in a row until Nepo Laulala returned from a neck injury. Unfortunately, with a low cap-to-age ratio, Ta'avao may have played his last test.
Position: Loosehead Prop
Age: 26 years old
Caps: 1 test
Clubs: Chiefs & Bay of Plenty Steamers
The 2019-2021 Steamers captain finally earned his test debut when coming on in the second 2022 test against Ireland, having waited a long time for it due to numerous injuries. Though Ross downplayed the possibility of a call-up to me when I met him, this was a well-deserved test debut, even though George Bower, Ross and also Karl Tu'inukuafe, were chosen against Ireland over Ethan de Groot, the clear best loosehead in New Zealand.
Aidan Ross warms up for the Chiefs at Sky Stadium, 2022. Photo: Max Sharp.
Just a few months later though, Ofa Tu'ungafasi appears to be repeating history and playing loosehead prop for the back-end of a World Cup cycle, while Foster's mysterious fascination with George Bower has kept Ross out of the end-of-year tour squad. Ross is young enough to attend the 2027 Rugby World Cup and also the 2031 World Cup as a 35-year-old, but with just 19 minutes of test rugby under his belt, this appears an uphill battle.
With his own Chiefs teammate, Ollie Norris, as well as the Crusaders' Tamaiti Williams, breathing down the neck of Bower and Tu'ungafasi, Ross has certainly been put in an unfortunate position for a bloke that's about to turn 27. Bower should have faced the chop instead.
Position: Loose Forward
Age: 25 years old
Caps: 12 test caps
Clubs: Chiefs & Waikato Mooloos
Most former rugby players and rugby coaches have come together in agreement that Ian Foster's rugby IQ isn't as high as his All Blacks Head Coach predecessors. However, he has learned from one mistake Steve Hansen made and that's have too much versatility. In this approach from Foster, Luke Jacobson, who can play at 6, 7 and 8, has been a casualty.
Having been the skipper for a 2017 Under 20 Championship win, many spoke of Jacobson as a future All Black captain when he made his test debut in 2019. Concussion hasn't been a friend of his though; Jacobson missed the 2020 season and 2019 Rugby World Cup with injuries. While he was able to play 145 minutes at blindside and 326 minutes at number 8 in 2021, he is well down the pecking order for both jerseys, having not played a test in 2022.
Being third in the 8 depth chart and fifth in the 6 depth chart, Jacobson faces the same fate as the injured Ethan Blackadder, as he does not command a significant share of minutes in either position Foster has used him in. A huge pity for an up-and-coming player who had so much potential. As things stand, Jacobson's fate is likely all but sealed and his likelihood of attending the 2023 Rugby World Cup, is now miniscule.