Five Possible Super Rugby Player Downfalls for 2023
Seeing our favourite players lose their form is always hard to watch, especially after they hit huge highs in their career. The brutal reality of professional sport however, is that there will always be ups-and-downs for teams, referees, coaches and the players too. Even the 2007 All Blacks were knocked out in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals, despite having Sir Graham Henry, a former British and Irish Lions coach, in charge.
There will be several players looking to avoid form slumps such as the one suffered by Codie Taylor in the 2022 season. Photo: Max Sharp.
In this article, we'll look at a player from each New Zealand Super Rugby team, who could possibly pay the price for lacking form in 2022, or become a victim of their team's circumstances; including strategy or selection criteria.
Age: 25 years old
Position: First-Five & Fullback
Test Caps: 3 tests
A 20-year-old Perofeta was amazing against the 2017 British and Irish Lions, then regained this form in 2021, becoming the Bunnings NPC's leading points-scorer for that season after returning from injury. Though Leon MacDonald picked Beauden Barrett as the Blues' first-choice 10, Perofeta went back-to-back, being Super Rugby's leading points-scorer for 2022.
The 2020-22 All Blacks First-Five Depth Chart.
At the end of 2021, the First-Five depth chart, was simply looking dire. With Damian McKenzie on just 116 minutes and the Mo'unga-Barrett debate leading the charge, Perofeta's well-deserved All Blacks call-up was looking to finally create the next cab off the rank - Dan Carter and Colin Slade's 2011 injuries have let us know depth is essential in the positions of your team's spine. Perofeta's test debut however, was even more infuriating than the result of the match.
Being bought onto the pitch for Jordie Barrett against Argentina, with one minute left, Perofeta did not even touch the ball on his test debut, an 18-25 loss. His only start of 2022 was an 80-minute Japan test at fullback, while he played just two minutes at 10 against Scotland. While his abilities deserve it, it's clear that for whatever reason, Ian Foster does not trust Perofeta at 10 against a tier one nation.
Joe Schmidt's selection criteria for combination-building should also allow for the return of Damian McKenzie to test level in 2023. Foster, Schmidt and Jason Ryan were the All Blacks XV selectors, rather than MacDonald and this team saw Damian McKenzie's Tokyo Sungoliath spell at 10, continue to develop under the radar. MacDonald also has a combination-building criteria at the Blues, so will likely keep Perofeta at 15, leading to a player who deserves a place at the Rugby World Cup, missing out, to Damian McKenzie.
Age: 25 years old
Position: Number 8
Test Caps: 12 tests
While many of the people who believe their internet comments will change Ian Foster's mind, had their outrage to spew, the few remaining mainstream journalists, who have the ability to think from a coach's perspective, outlined the reasons for Jacobson being dropped, perfectly. Jacobson had paid the price, for not clearly establishing himself, in any of the three jerseys he can play in.
The 2020-22 All Blacks Blindside Flanker Depth Chart.
Samipeni Finau was the biggest winner out of Sam Cane's late injury in the 2022 Super Rugby season; forcing Jacobson to play at openside flanker in the last three Chiefs games of the year. Playing 4 at blindside, 3 at 8 and two as a substitute, Jacobson has suffered from his team-first attitude. Currently ranking as the fifth-choice blindside flanker on Ian Foster's depth chart, as well as the third-choice number 8 based on minutes played since 2020, things look grim for the man once touted as a future All Black captain.
The 2020-22 All Blacks Number 8 Depth Chart.
Some will mention the fact that the entirety of the All Blacks' third-choice players, in the team's spine, play for the Chiefs (except for Dane Coles who is the third-choice hooker). As we all know though, third-choice players in a team's spine, are not safe ahead of a World Cup. Think of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, when Liam Coltman supplanted an injured Nathan Harris. That tournament also saw selections such as the incredible return of Brad Weber, Luke Whitelock's axing, plus the retention of Ben Smith after Damian McKenzie was ruled out due to injury.
Although he was called into the All Blacks XV, after not playing during the Rugby Championship, Jacobson will be disappointed. With Finau continuing to grow so much for the Chiefs, Pita Gus Sowakula blocking Jacobson from being the number 8, as well as the All Blacks' top priority being balance of the lineout with Shannon Frizell and Scott Barrett at 6, Jacobson's international career, could likely be over at just 25 years old.
Age: 27 years old
Test Caps: 9 tests
While there remains a delusional few who truly believe Blackadder to be the first-choice blindside, there is no evidence to suggest this is the case. Had Blackadder not been injured, I don't believe he'd have been picked anyway. Much like Jacobson, Blackadder has not truly nailed down any of the three loose forward jerseys - it was Pablo Matera preferred by Scott Robertson at 6, for the most crucial Crusaders matches of 2022. Blackadder also lacks the venomous carrying of a true number 8 such as an Ardie Savea, or France's Gregory Alldritt.
Blackadder lacks the height to balance the All Blacks' lineout at 6, while he also lacks the low centre of gravity possessed by a true 7 such as a Tom Christie, or South Africa's Kwagga Smith. Jacobson was also preferred as a starter to Blackadder in both 2021 tests against South Africa (though Jacobson was a late withdrawal from the first due to illness), while Blackadder was subbed off after a poor performance against Ireland and not selected to play against France.
Tom Christie's test debut could potentially be a different option for Ian Foster and Jason Ryan to consider when they pick their Rugby World Cup squad. Photo: Max Sharp.
When the 2023 Rugby Championship rolls around, Blackadder will be a 28-year-old with just 9 test caps, while he has also played just 16 more minutes at blindside than Scott Barrett, in the Foster era. Blackadder is also sitting with far fewer minutes on the openside flanker chart than Sam Cane and Dalton Papali'i, both of whom are clear shoe-ins for the 2023 Rugby World Cup. With Ardie Savea, the first-choice number 8, also able to cover 7, there is no logical reason for Foster and co, to pick a fourth openside when they have a lineout to think about.
The 2020-22 All Blacks Openside Flanker Depth Chart.
What's worse for Blackadder, is that his starting jersey might not even be safe at the Crusaders anymore. Christian Lio-Willie, a specialist number 8 picked for the All Blacks XV, has shifted north from the Highlanders. Lio-Willie isn't just clearly on the radar of test rugby, but has the intent-to-kill with ball-in-hand that Scott Robertson simply hasn't been able to coach into either Blackadder, or Cullen Grace. Look for Grace to move back to his proper jersey with Lio-Willie at 8. If this indeed happens, Blackadder will be stuck on the bench, unable to add to his 9 test caps. He is not the second-coming of Richie McCaw as some have said, he's this generation's Steven Luatua.
Age: 24 years old
Position: Utility Back
Test Caps: uncapped
A player who has attracted an unfair share of online hate has to be Scott Gregory; mistakes he made on his Super Rugby debut were vilified to the next level. Although he's kicked on since then, defence very much remains a work-on, for the fullback-turned-centre. Gregory missed 9 tackles in the 2022 Super Rugby quarter-final, as the Blues knocked the Highlanders out of the competition.
Former 3-test All Blacks prop Clarke Dermody, has also taken over as the Highlanders' Head Coach for the 2023 season, having previously been the team's interim coach, when Tony Brown's role as Japan Assistant Coach required him to miss the 2021 Super Rugby Trans-Tasman matches. When looking back on those matches, one will notice Dermody's selection criteria being very different to Brown's.
Although they were not initially named in the squad, Dermody's late signings of Martin Bogado, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi and Freddie Burns tell us a few things as well. The clues I've taken notice of, are that Dermody is looking for a dominant pack, backed up by a backline that blends playmakers with power; Thomas Umaga-Jensen will be fit to play too. Dermody is also looking for experienced players who can build a habit of winning.
Gregory doesn't particularly fit into the group of players with a world-class rugby IQ, while Thomas Umaga-Jensen and Fetuli Paea will be midfielders with more power and distribution abilities. Although this will harm Gregory's chances of a test debut, look for him to get utilised as a super-sub off the bench.
Age: 36 years old
Test Caps: 84 tests
Coles isn't the player he was in 2016, when he was nominated for World Rugby Player of the Year. Coles has missed more matches of professional, than he's played, since 2018. Playing just 11 games of professional rugby in 2017 and just 6 games in 2018 due to concussion and a torn ACL respectively, Coles also missed 10 games for the Hurricanes with a calf injury in 2019. Coles went on to also miss the 2020 North Island vs South Island match due to this same injury, then missing the entire 2021 Rugby Championship for the same reason.
Again, this ongoing calf injury caused Coles to play just 8 games of professional rugby in 2022; being sent home after withdrawing late from a test against Japan. Already the sixth-to-oldest ever All Black, is Coles seriously going to be match-fit at all? Just three All Blacks have played tests past their 36th birthday; Brad Thorn and Keven Mealamu were able to do so thanks to a huge personal investment in their recoveries, though Mealamu was well past his prime in his last test. The oldest-ever All Black was Ned Hughes, who played his final test aged 40, in the year 1921.
Dane Coles, pictured for the Hurricanes in 2021, looks set to lose his All Blacks spot to his Hurricanes teammate Asafo Aumua. Photo: Max Sharp.
While Asafo Aumua, the Hurricanes' first-choice hooker, had been in the form of his life for Wellington, winning the NPC and Ranfurly Shield, Coles has yet to be sighted in a Hurricanes post to social media surrounding the team at training. Ever since the arrival of Joe Schmidt and Jason Ryan as the All Blacks' assistant coaches, Ian Foster has become far more unforgiving when it comes to players' mistakes or lack of match fitness, while Foster has begun to learn from past mistakes, such as his temporary restoration of Beauden Barrett to the 10 jersey.
Foster was one of the three selectors for the All Blacks' 2019 Rugby World Cup campaign. Hopefully, with the freshness injected into his rugby mind, he will learn from his 2019 mistakes and do to Coles, what he failed to do with Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty. Even if Coles is match-fit, look for Aumua to remain the Hurricanes' first-choice hooker and make it to the 2023 Rugby World Cup.