Although such a statement will make me sound closed-minded, I doubt Ian Foster will select any uncapped players for the All Blacks this season. Test-level coaches themselves, become very closed-minded regarding their selections in the build-up to a Rugby World Cup, as coaches want to take teams with a high level of combination-building and shared playing cohesion to such a tournament. As the old saying goes, World Cups are won on experience.
However, there can sometimes be the odd exception, to make it to a Rugby World Cup. Codie Taylor and Sevu Reece, who are both current All Blacks, debuted in World Cup years, featuring in 2015 and 2019 respectively. Nobody will forget when Michael Jones debuted in 1987, while Simon Culhane dominated Japan on debut in 1995. Jonah Lomu had played just two tests before that same tournament as well, finishing as the top try-scorer. Perhaps the most classic bolters of all time, were Dan Carter and Ma'a Nonu, who became stars later down the track after their 2003 test debuts.
Current All Blacks winger, Sevu Reece, was a bolter for the 2019 Rugby World Cup; this was the same year as his Super Rugby debut. Photo: Max Sharp.
Though I see Ian Foster making such a move as highly unlikely, there is no harm in examining the most likely players who could fit into Foster's selection criteria, as after all, injuries do happen. Let's speculate on the possible options.
Ruben Love (Hurricanes)
Age: 21 years old
Considering the fact that SANZAAR are looking to speed up the process of Super Rugby, the backline are all going to shine in the competition. Although Ian Foster's backline is near-completely settled, the Hurricanes' 21-year-old utility back is near-certain to be the biggest winner, should injuries strike Foster's outside back contingencies.
Ruben Love of Wellington commands his team's forward pack in the 2022 Bunnings NPC final. Photo: Max Sharp.
Stephen Perofeta was starved of minutes at test level during 2022, accumulating 83 minutes from just three test caps. All measures indicate his inevitable dropping for Damian McKenzie, but we all know McKenzie's place in the team may not be necessarily secure; as he is the third-choice player at both first-five and fullback. Love's career so far too, has been strikingly similar to McKenzie's.
Love prefers to play at fullback and played the position remarkably well in 2022, though his attributes as a goal-kicker who can cover 10, will work in his favour. Love won't shy away from tough tackles either; he's added a significant amount of muscle to his frame since his 2021 Super Rugby debut as a 19-year-old. After being picked for the All Blacks XV, he is certain to be an All Black in 2024. However, if injury hits an important player, this young man will be the benefactor.
Marino Mikaele-Tu'u (Highlanders)
Age: 25 years old
Position: Number 8
I wouldn't personally apply the bolter term to Mikaele-Tu'u under normal circumstances but in a World Cup year, test debuts are hard to come by - everyone becomes a bolter all of a sudden. The hulking number 8, who is also eligible for Samoa thanks to ancestry, is the older brother of Liana Mikaele-Tu'u, who was strong in the Black Ferns' Rugby World Cup campaign.
After making the 8 jersey his own for the Highlanders in 2020, Mikaele-Tu'u has been knocking on the door of the test scene since then; aside from in 2021 when a leg fracture saw him concede the jersey to Japan's Kazuki Himeno who initially looked set to play at 7 for the team. Mikaele-Tu'u's All Blacks XV teammate in 2022 was former All Black, Luke Jacobson, but after constant shifting around in jerseys (including 7 vs Ireland "A" and at 8 vs the Barbarians), appears to have shut the door on Jacobson for good; while Chiefs number 8 Pita Gus Sowakula has turned down a third test cap though signing with Clermont.
As Hoskins Sotutu is the lone specialist number 8 that Foster and co. have trusted to backup Ardie Savea, there is very thin depth in the jersey, behind the nation's very best. Should Sotutu's luck get cut short through injury, don't be surprised to see Mikaele-Tu'u leapfrog Jacobson and then start shredding opposing defence lines to pieces at the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Cameron Suafoa (Blues)
Age: 24 years old
As a big Tom Robinson fan, I personally believe he was robbed of an All Black cap. Robinson, son of former All Black Alastair Robinson, is 28 years old however. There's a feeling that the All Blacks selectors just aren't interested in picking him, given he's been in brilliant form ever since 2019. Although the unfair snubbing of Robinson is annoying for fans and I to see, the All Blacks' selection criteria could well play into the hands of Cameron Suafoa, his Blues teammate, who debuted for the Māori All Blacks in 2022.
After lone appearances for Auckland and Tasman, Suafoa has been brilliant since debuting for North Harbour in 2021. His gargantuan stature has seen him cover lock, blindside flanker and number 8 in the NPC, but after his Māori All Blacks debut saw 68 minutes at flanker, it's clear what position Suafoa wants to play long-term.
Despite deserving an All Black cap very much, Blues forward Tom Robinson, somehow has not been on the All Blacks selectors' radar in recent years. Photo: Max Sharp.
Sam Cane is the All Blacks' captain, while Ardie Savea is the best player in the world; which makes them the first names on the team sheet at test level. The only test that both played together in 2021, was a heavy defeat to France. As a result, Foster transferred Scott Barrett's massive minutes on the lock depth chart to blindside flanker in 2022; to balance the lineout. While Barrett covered an injured Brodie Retallick at lock, Shannon Frizell was also reinstated. The All Blacks need a third lock at 6; or someone close to Barrett's height to balance that lineout and considering Suafoa's huge frame, he may be in luck if injuries strike.
Oliver Jager (Crusaders)
Age: 27 years old
Jager, born in London, grew up in Ireland for the vast majority of his formative years and attended Blackrock College, a rugby production factory. He's a similar case to Mikaele-Tu'u; a player well on the radar simply adopting the term for a World Cup year. After arriving in New Zealand during 2013, Jager has however, made it clear his intentions are to be an All Black instead. Though the Irishman is eligible for three nations, he now considers himself a Kiwi after 10 years in the country.
His frame would be a good like-for-like replacement should Tyrel Lomax go down, while he'd combine well with Ofa Tu'ungafasi or Ethan de Groot well, due to their similar height. Jager probably feels that he's not too far off the mark either; after all, he started over 5-time All Black, Fletcher Newell, in the 2022 Super Rugby final.
The big number 3 has also turned down a debut for Ireland previously, while he made the All Blacks XV at the end of 2022; though he was later forced to withdraw from the team due to injury. While Tamaiti Williams is definitely a better player with more potential than Jager, Ian Foster will likely want to pick a more experienced player, as it's a World Cup year.
Caleb Delany (Hurricanes)
Age: 23 years old
Delany, who juggles full-time professional rugby with his architecture degree at Victoria University, is exactly what coaches want in a blindside flanker. He's a physical player who with no regard for his own body, that will smash defenders backwards with a surprising amount of pace. You can always count on Delany to be a brute with a high tackle count too.
Caleb Delany (far left), may find himself getting lots of game time in 2023, with both the Hurricanes and All Blacks looking for lineout balance. Photo: Max Sharp.
After spending much of 2022, his first Super Rugby season, finalising wether he'd play at lock or 6, his Māori All Blacks debut was a 63-minute crack at Ireland, coming off the bench for an injured Reed Prinsep. Delany was the unsung hero of Wellington's Bunnings NPC campaign too, dominating the lineout to counterbalance both Peter Lakai and Du'Plessis Kirifi starting. As a very similar player to the aforementioned Cameron Suafoa, Delany would be a perfect option to cover an injury to Shannon Frizell.
The All Blacks' selection criteria for their loose forwards is now crystal clear; there's no room for any more versatility in the department due to Ardie Savea and Dalton Papali'i; while if there is not a third lock available to start at 6, it needs to be a player who stands at at least 1.93m. If there's an uncapped player floating around who will fit such a bill in need to cover Barrett and Frizell, it's a straight shootout between Delany and Suafoa. To see which one comes into the equation, it'll all come down to who gets the most game time. I'd say Delany may get the inside running due to the Hurricanes' own need for lineout balance.