Written by Max Sharp.
Now that Ian Foster has confirmed his 35-man All Blacks squad to tour Japan and Europe, Leon MacDonald has been able to select his own 28-man All Blacks XV squad, which is heading north to face the Ireland "A" team and the Barbarians, who will be coached by Scott Robertson.
New Zealand Rugby founded the All Blacks XV in 2020, so that our nation could have an equivalent to sides such as Australia "A" and South Africa "A", a fixture against Fiji had been scheduled for the All Blacks XV prior to the mass COVID-19 outbreak that year. Plenty of well-deserving players have earned their spots in this team, but there are an unlucky few, who will be feeling real hunger to improve after omission from MacDonald's side.
Let's have a look at who the biggest winners and the unluckiest losers are, for the team.
Alex Nankivell has earned selection for the All Blacks XV, having previously spoke of ambitions to make the team.
Age: 28 years old
Clubs: Moana Pasifika & Tasman Mako
The 28-year-old late bloomer will now have fuel to remind himself to keep going as he is indeed on Ian Foster's radar for international selection. Most importantly however, it turns out players will not lose eligibility for other nations after they debut for the All Blacks XV; this was the same case for Māori All Blacks, James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park.
Having been born in Auckland, Aumua grew up in Australia, while his father is Samoan and his mother Fijian. Now that he has shedded some of his body fat percentage in recent years, Aumua remains eligible for four different nations, while he will also get to bring his ace passing game and destructive running to the international stage.
Being a player for Moana Pasifika, he is indeed able to play for this team; Moana are permitted to pick 8 out of their 38-man squad, who are not eligible for a pacific island nation. Though this has come very late in Aumua's career, could he be the club's first All Black?
Age: 20 years old
Clubs: Crusaders & Canterbury Rugby
Having been born in 2002, Bell is the youngest player in MacDonald's team and one of just seven to be born in the 21st century; to compare, Bryce Heem is the only player in the team who was born in the 1980's. Bell was the captain of the New Zealand U20 side for their 2022 campaign, previously debuted for the Crusaders off the bench, replacing Ricky Jackson when Codie Taylor was injured.
The John McGlashan College alumni is also the brother of Otago hooker, Henry Bell, but has done plenty of work behind the scenes, having been a product of the Crusaders' academy project. Many Canterbury fans have talked Bell up as a potential All Black, despite him not yet having a Super Rugby contract.
To those who are excited by this 20-year-old prospect, here is our chance to find out just how much potential he has. If Bell proves himself for the long-term, expect a hooker trio of Samisoni Taukei'aho, Tyrone Thompson and also Bell, for 2027's Rugby World Cup.
Position: Loose Forward
Age: 24 years old
Clubs: Highlanders & Hawke's Bay Magpies
At long last, this destructive force of a number 8 has had some respect put on his name. Mikaele-Tu'u and his sister, Liana, who is now a Black Fern, became the first brother-sister duo in Super Rugby, but injury has prevented him from fully cracking the All Blacks; he missed a huge bulk of the Highlanders' 2021 season due to a leg fracture. This had come shortly after he missed selection for the 2020 North Island team to Akira Ioane and Hoskins Sotutu.
2022 has seen Mikaele-Tu'u return to his very best and the result has been defence lines being terrorised by his attack, while he was also one of Super Rugby's top jacklers with 11 turnovers. At 1.93m, he is a genuine lineout option, while he provides the muscle to generate front-foot ball at 113kg. Having been used by his teams as an enforcer for tight channels, he's been well capable of being an All Black for a long time, whether it be at 6 or 8.
Can this become the moment where Ian Foster finally sees the value here? Hopefully so.
Position: Centre & Winger
Age: 24 years old
Clubs: Hurricanes & Waikato Mooloos
Sullivan cracked the Napier Boys' High School 1st XV as a 14-year-old, before giving up a lot for rugby and shifting north to Kings' College in Auckland. Injuries made a severe disruption towards Sullivan's career however, he made his Waikato debut all the way back in 2017 and though he's accumulated 55 games for them, he made just 8 appearances for the Chiefs in four seasons.
Bailyn Sullivan warms up for the Hurricanes before facing the Chiefs. Photo: Max Sharp.
A shift south to the Hurricanes has proven a rejuvenation for Sullivan's domestic career, as he thrived to rank 19th for metres run, 42nd for defenders beaten, 16th for clean breaks and 28th for offloads. With pace to burn, Sullivan is the closest possible replica to Rieko Ioane in the country and if Ioane goes down, Sullivan, not Braydon Ennor, is the best option as a call-up to replace Ioane.
Having had suspect defence during Super Rugby, this will provide a strong insight on wether Sullivan has improved it enough to get a call-up from Ian Foster. After a horrible run of injuries, the worst is perhaps finally behind him.
Clubs: Hurricanes and Counties Manukau Steelers
Called in as injury cover by the Hurricanes in 2021, Roigard returned from injury for his full contract this season and has made huge gains in improvement throughout 2022. With Aaron Smith currently 33 years old, most of the rugby public have accepted that there will be a change of guard at halfback post-2023. But who is in the mix?
Cam Roigard (centre) with the other Hurricanes halfbacks, TJ Perenara and Jamie Booth, at Sky Stadium. Photo: Max Sharp.
Finlay Christie is 27 years old right now, so it is entirely possible the 2027 World Cup will be a bridge too far for Christie; 30 or so tends to be the retiring age of All Blacks halfbacks. While Folau Fakatava has been Smith's heir apparent for some time, even after missing most of 2021 injured, Roigard has beaten the Chiefs duo of Xavier Roe and Cortez-Lee Ratima to a spot in the All Blacks XV and more importantly, supplanted Samoan international, Jonathan Taumateine as Counties' first-choice halfback.
Ranking 10th for defenders beaten in the NPC, going alongside a tally of 530 metres, 31 defenders beaten, 10 clean breaks and 21 offloads off 70 carries, as well as a tackle percentage of 91%, Roigard's potential is now surfacing. He will be 23 years old for 2024's mid-year tests. That's a perfect age for a test debut.
Age: 27 years old
Caps: 19 tests
Clubs: Crusaders & Canterbury Rugby
What a fall from grace it has been indeed for the 27-year-old. I attended high school with Bridge, who was snubbed from many sports awards in 2012, his final year. This however, was the making of him. Bridge, who was just 17 when he finished school, went south to Canterbury for his rugby and having been the skinny kid at school, Bridge gained substantial muscle, while playing the game with a rare-to-find fire in his eyes (likely thanks to the school's competitive culture), possessing a willingness to smash defenders and score closer to the posts.
Enjoying the near-perfect test debut in 2018 after waiting for a long time, Bridge supplanted Rieko Ioane and started on the left wing during the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Playing the full 80 in 2020's first test, this fiery attack seemed to disappear from Bridge after a training injury that year. A shocker against South Africa in 2021 was the beginning of the end for Bridge, who played his last test later that year.
The raw will to win he had, has gone, leading to his omission from this team, the final nail in the coffin of Bridge's test career. Bridge will, sadly, go down as just another outside back who played his last test young, with injury having ruined his career. Ioane, who Bridge replaced on the wing however, has reinvented himself as the nation's best 13 since Tana Umaga.
Position: Tighthead Prop
Age: 27 years old
Caps: 3 tests
Clubs: Highlanders & Otago Razorbacks
Ainsley's exclusion from this squad, is a disgrace. The bloke can scrum, but more importantly, is mobile. With a strong workrate on the pitch, the former Wallaby has also stood down from test rugby for 4 years, meaning he has re-gained his eligibility for the All Blacks, a team that his father, Joe McDonnell, represented.
While other props to miss selection such as Saula Ma'u, Ollie Norris and Xavier Numia, are still young enough to continue improving their game, snubbing a 27-year-old Ainsley for the unproven Finlay Brewis was a real insult. Having missed much of his early career and also the 2021 Super Rugby season due to injury, who knows how much Ainsley has left in the tank; he mentioned in a Q+A on The Black Jersey's YouTube channel, his run of injuries.
Jermaine Ainsley on The Black Jersey's YouTube channel, to discuss his career highlights and his future ambitions.
Playing as a prop takes a strong physical toll on players and it would have been wise to make the most of Ainsley's form now, he's a fit man with quick ruck speed and a high tackle count, despite standing at just 1.81m. Hopefully this bad decision doesn't see him return to Australia.
Pita Gus Sowakula
Position: Number 8
Age: 27 years old
Caps: 2 tests
Clubs: Chiefs & Taranaki Bulls
After seeing this squad, the two caps awarded to Sowakula against Ireland in 2022 are beginning to feel more and more cynical. Sowakula played 17 minutes at Eden Park and scored a try on his test debut, before playing another 11 minutes off the bench one week later. Some cited one knock on in each match as a reason for Sowakula being dropped, but quite frankly, nobody deserves to be made redundant after just 28 minutes of test rugby.
Pita Gus Sowakula (centre) detaches from the scrum and goes to ground before scoring a try on his test debut. Photo: Max Sharp.
While my Wife suspected this could happen, Sowakula, a specialist number 8, earned even less game time than predicted and now finds himself on the outer, in favour of Dominic Gardiner and Christian Lio-Willie, who are yet to come into their own in Super Rugby.
If Sowakula does not play another test for the All Blacks, he will have to wait until 2025, when he will be 30 years old, to debut for Fiji. Some have resorted to victim blaming regarding Sowakula turning down a place in Fiji's 2019 squad, but quite simply, why did Ian Foster pick a player he didn't plan to use extensively in the first place? Would have made more sense to cap Mikaele-Tu'u, but this will instead fall into yet another blunder made by Foster.
Position: Utility Back
Age: 24 years old
Caps: 1 test
Clubs: Hurricanes & Wellington Lions
Despite a shocking injury run early in his career, Umaga-Jensen returned to the Hurricanes in 2020 to singlehandedly beat the Crusaders with the 13 jersey on his back. After injury to Braydon Ennor and Rieko Ioane, he became the latest in a long line of his rugby playing family, to make it at test level. Umaga-Jensen's test debut was only 17 minutes due to a concussion, but it was exciting to see him run out to debut in front of his uncle, Tana Umaga.
However, since fatherhood, he hasn't quite reached the same heights, as injury has reared its ugly head again. Missing the second half of the Hurricanes' 2020 campaign after establishing himself as the new 12, Umaga-Jensen was also injured in Wellington's Ranfurly Shield triumph. Despite being available for selection in the All Blacks XV, Umaga-Jensen has now missed out to Bryce Heem, who at 33 years old, will clearly never be an All Black.
Umaga-Jensen will have a mountain of work to do to return to test-level, with David Havili, Jordie Barrett, Rieko Ioane, Braydon Ennor, Anton Lienert-Brown, Alex Nankivell, Bryce Heem, Bailyn Sullivan and Levi Aumua, as well as the injured Jack Goodhue and Quinn Tupaea, seemingly ahead of him in the pecking order. Luckily, at 24 years old though, his career is by no means over yet.
Age: 27 years old
Caps: 1 test
Clubs: Chiefs & Otago Razorbacks
Knowing his career needed a re-set, Ioane left the Highlanders for the Chiefs, sick of being shifted around from jersey-to-jersey, as he knows absolutely that he is a specialist 10. Succeeding Lima Sopoaga as the Highlanders' 10 in 2019, Ioane played the entire second half against Tonga, for his test debut, pushing through some early nerves
Josh Ioane at a training with the Chiefs. Photo: Max Sharp.
However, Ioane didn't seem to be eye-to-eye with Tony Brown, who promoted Mitch Hunt into 10 ahead of Ioane in the Highlanders. With the Chiefs without a definite 10 for 2022, Ioane shifted north, only for Bryn Gatland to light the world on fire and finally bring some attack to his game, fulfilling his potential at last. Ioane saw himself frozen out of the starting lineup through injury and to this day, is shifted into 12 and 15 by Otago.
A lack of continual time as a first-choice 10 at first-class level, a result of mismanagement, has seen Ioane continuing to make rookie mistakes in the NPC. Thanks to never getting a world-class coach who was able to harness such potential, Ioane, at 27, will likely never be an All Black again and has become a true case, of what could have been.