Written by Max Sharp.
The spotlight is on the Black Ferns right now, as they look set to break numerous records for attendance at a womens' rugby match, with the 2021 Rugby World Cup finally arriving at Eden Park after being postponed by one year. New Zealanders will be in for a treat, with Wayne Smith's team looking to scramble back from Glenn Moore's rock bottom losses in 2021, to win the World Cup back-to-back, for a sixth World Cup title overall.
For the first time in a long time, the All Blacks seem on the outer of New Zealand Rugby's marketing, but let's not forget the fact that 2023 will see them take on France in the World Cup's opening test match. With several positional depth charts held by the firm grip of the first-choice player, the wider training squad, outside Ian Foster's first-choice match-day 23 is going to be very interesting. World Rugby will permit Foster to take 33 players to the tournament.
Let's dive into each cohort of the All Blacks squad and line up the possible choices for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
1. Samisoni Taukei'aho (25 years old, 17 test caps)
2. Codie Taylor (31 years old, 71 test caps)
3. Asafo Aumua (25 years old, 6 test caps)
Having improved out-of-sight since a horrendous 2020 Super Rugby season at the lineout, Samisoni Taukei'aho has rapidly ascended to the throne as first-choice hooker and is all but set to take the number 2 jersey uncontested. His lineout throwing now allows him to dominate at test level, while Taylor, as the player with the most minutes at hooker under Foster, will be certain to back Taukei'aho up off the bench.
Though Asafo Aumua has played just 188 minutes of test rugby since his debut in 2020; having become an All Black in a non-capped fixture against the Barbarians in 2017, he is in red hot form now. Coming off the back of a 4-try performance in Round 9 of the NPC and Wellington having a 86% lineout winning ratio, perhaps we're seeing a late bloomer finally fulfill his potential.
While there will be the defenders of Dane Coles, one of either he or Taylor are likely to face the axe, as Jason Ryan's forthright will to find form forces Foster's hand. Coles' unlucky run of injuries waves the uncertainty above his head and with Taylor taking up more than twice as much of the depth chart as Coles, while being younger, Coles seems more likely to be dropped.
Codie Taylor sets up to throw for the lineout against Ireland, Eden Park. Photo: Max Sharp.
4. Ethan de Groot (24 years old, 10 test caps)
5. Ofa Tu'ungafasi (30 years old, 48 test caps)
6. George Bower (30 years old, 19 test caps)
7. Tyrel Lomax (26 years old, 20 test caps)
8. Nepo Laulala (30 years old, 42 test caps)
9. Fletcher Newell (22 years old, 4 test caps)
Though Joe Moody is rumoured to be ahead of schedule in his post-surgery rehab for a torn ACL, will he still be young enough to return to form? Moody has had a career crippled by injuries and in all likelihood, this was the nail in the coffin of the 34-year-old's test career. Ethan de Groot has proven himself the first-choice loosehead after losing 6kg, so will attend for sure and George Bower leads the loosehead depth chart due to Moody's injury. Although there are plenty of talented up-and-coming props in the NPC, Foster is loyal to his players, which guarantees Bower a place.
Ofa Tu'ungafasi hasn't quite played the minutes he'd have liked to under Foster, but if fit, we may see history repeat itself and watch him cover loosehead prop off the bench. Tu'ungafasi is still young enough to make it to the 2027 Rugby World Cup, meaning he will force Bower to be third-choice. Aidan Ross has just 1 test cap to his name so may miss out, while Tamaiti Williams and Ollie Norris don't seem to be on Foster's radar, despite their potential to redefine the prop position.
Tighthead prop is likely much more straight forward. Despite fans calling for Nepo Laulala being axed and his rumoured future in France, Foster is loyal to experience and he leads the depth chart. Lomax has overtaken Laulala and will have surpassed Laulala's share of the depth chart if he retains his rate of earning minutes, so that's the first and second choice. Though Angus Ta'avao was a dominant scrummager for the Chiefs this season, a red card against Ireland and poor performance against South Africa mean he may have played his last test, especially with Foster showing faith in handing Fletcher Newell a debut at Ellis Park. If fit, Newell will benefit from playing in the World Cup's pool stages in order to accelerate his progress.
10. Brodie Retallick (31 years old, 98 test caps)
11. Sam Whitelock (33 years old, 140 test caps)
12. Scott Barrett (28 years old, 55 test caps)
13. Tupou Vaa'i (22 years old, 15 test caps)
Ian Foster's pecking order for lock remains incredibly clear cut, as it did one year ago. He sees Whitelock and Retallick as the first-choice combo, Barrett and Tuipulotu as the second-choice, while Vaa'i and the injured Josh Lord are there as the next generation to learn off an experienced second-choice duo, as well as the greatest locking pair of all time, with Retallick their teammate at the Chiefs.
Lord's lack of experience will likely see him miss out on a spot for 2023, with his ACL injury robbing him of a third test cap in 2022. Tuipulotu also has complications with a neck injury, he has not played a match of rugby since 9th July when he came off the bench against Ireland. With Vaa'i rapidly improving and now likely the finished product, he is gaining on his childhood idol, Tuipulotu, on the lock depth chart.
Vaa'i won't play in big matches at the World Cup though; Scott Barrett's extensive experience playing both lock and flanker make him the world's best jack-of-all trades off the bench, he even played the last 18 minutes in Perth for 2021, packing down at number 8. Though fitness has become a regular question around Retallick, he's two caps away from a century so will be picked if fit, with Whitelock in the same boat, eyeing Richie McCaw's record as most-capped All Black.
Sam Whitelock (pictured in 2019 for the Crusaders) has a lengthy record as a captain for the All Blacks (15 tests) and the Crusaders (2017-2019), so will be picked. Photo: Max Sharp.
14. Shannon Frizell (28 years old, 21 test caps)
15. Sam Cane - Captain (30 years old, 85 test caps)
16. Dalton Papali'i (24 years old, 18 test caps)
17. Ardie Savea (28 years old, 67 test caps)
18. Hoskins Sotutu (24 years old, 12 test caps)
Number 8 is about as straightforward as things get for the selectors. As the position is one of the team's key decision-makers, Ardie Savea is the first name on the team sheet, while Hoskins Sotutu appears to be the only player Foster trusts to be a backup for Savea, though Savea's status as the world's best player has limited Sotutu's minutes.
With clear backups needed for the spine of the team, this may see Akira Ioane and Luke Jacobson face the axe. Ioane is a better player than Shannon Frizell and leads the 6 depth chart, but one has to remember that this is only due to Frizell attending a court hearing, for which he was not convicted. With Cane and Savea lacking the height to be lineout jumpers, Frizell is the first-choice 6, while Scott Barrett is the most similar replica to Frizell available, so expect to see Barrett start at 6 if Frizell is injured. Jacobson is far down the pecking order at 6, while he ranks third on the 8 depth chart; he seems to have been a victim of his own versatility.
With Ethan Blackadder having just 9 test caps at 27 years old and ranking third for the blindside depth chart and fourth at openside, shoulder surgery has almost definitely ended his World Cup hopes. With this in mind, Dalton Papali'i is certain to be Sam Cane's backup, though Papali'i has gained a healthy share of minutes and has become a proven performer in the tight channels. Sam Cane is captain, so won't be going anywhere.
19. Aaron Smith (33 years old, 111 test caps)
20. Finlay Christie (27 years old, 12 test caps)
21. Folau Fakatava (22 years old, 2 test caps)
Smith's played massive minutes under Foster, even after missing the 2021 Rugby Championship due to paternity leave. Though his game is in clear decline, Christie and Fakatava just haven't got the experience to ascend to being first-choice players. The two of them are both indeed better players than Smith, but we're too deep into a World Cup cycle to see Ian Foster drop Smith.
However, if Smith gets injured, there are two experienced players who remain available. TJ Perenara never developed into a strong decision-maker at test level during his 78 tests, but remains the player with the second-to-most minutes on Foster's depth chart. It's also much better to throw Perenara in to start, than go for an uncapped player.
Though Perenara was dropped after an 80-minute match against Ireland in 2021, Weber, who was chosen over Perenara as Smith's replacement against France, is still in brilliant form. With both of them indeed signed through to 2023, it's much better to have proven performers waiting in the wings than untried prospects for a position in the team's spine.
Aaron Smith (far left) lines up for the New Zealand national anthem at Sky Stadium, alongside the rest of the All Blacks' leadership group. Photo: Max Sharp.
22. Richie Mo'unga (28 years old, 41 test caps)
23. Beauden Barrett (31 years old, 109 test caps)
24. Damian McKenzie (27 years old, 40 test caps)
With a pathetic lack of depth at 10, Foster won't be making any changes here. Despite finally fulfilling his potential, Bryn Gatland will likely never be an All Black at age 27, while Josh Ioane's chances of a re-call look increasingly unlikely at the same age. Though Stephen Perofeta was named in the team at 10, his debut was just a single minute long and he did not touch the ball, while he slotted in at 15, not 10. Foster's notorious faith in proven performers is unlikely to favour the likes of Fergus Burke, Brett Cameron, Lincoln McClutchie or Aidan Morgan.
With the Barrett-Mo'unga debate finally settled with Joe Schmidt redesigning the All Blacks' attack, there is at least certainty in the backline's dominant leader, while Barrett's experience off the bench is always a bonus for the team's psychology.
For the last year, I've had constant questions asking about where Damian McKenzie is and simply put, playing a season-long deal in Japan forces you to concede your eligibility at test level. McKenzie's fanbase can finally end their wait though, as he will again be eligible for the 2022 end-of-year tour and subsequently, next year's World Cup too. Don't be surprised to see McKenzie play at 10 against Namibia and Uruguay, even though the majority of his test career has been at fullback.
25. David Havili (27 years old, 21 test caps)
26. Rieko Ioane (25 years old, 56 test caps)
27. Anton Lienert-Brown (27 years old, 56 test caps)
28. Alex Nankivell (25 years old, uncapped)
Jack Goodhue's torn ACL did not heal well, he has been forced to have another operation since his re-call to the All Blacks. Goodhue, being third in the 12 depth chart and without any minutes at 13, his preferred jersey, has almost certainly played his last test. Quinn Tupaea will have less than two months to prepare for the World Cup, having suffered the same injury at the hands of a particular Australian's actions.
Lienert-Brown is likely to return from his shoulder injury and feature at the World Cup as an impact player off the bench due to his ability to combine with both Havili and Ioane, while he can wear both the 12 and 13 jerseys. While the couch coaches want Jordie Barrett at 12, this will have to wait for the post-World Cup era in 2024 so that cohesion between the first-choice midfield combination isn't broken after two years of building. With Goodhue and Tupaea both out, Havili's share of the depth chart cannot be discarded; building combinations is more important than having (insert favourite player) in the team.
The unlucky omission will have to be Braydon Ennor, Tupaea's injury will be great for Roger Tuivasa-Sheck however, Ennor and Tuivasa-Sheck have not been given enough faith to get a decent share of minutes in their respective jerseys. Alex Nankivell is currently uncapped, but a likely pick for the upcoming All Blacks XV lineup. Nankivell has been fighting his way into game time throughout 2022 and with Tupaea out, extended game time will continue and if so, a test cap is imminent for him. As a far more confident attacker, who has been Lienert-Brown's Chiefs teammate since 2017 as well as the ability to play in both midfield jerseys, he could well be the beneficiary of circumstances.
Alex Nankivell on The Black Jersey's YouTube channel, for a Q&A about his career progress.
29. Caleb Clarke (23 years old, 11 test caps)
30. Leicester Fainga'anuku (22 years old, 2 test caps)
31. Sevu Reece (25 years old, 21 test caps)
32. Will Jordan (24 years old, 21 test caps)
33. Jordie Barrett (25 years old, 45 test caps)
Ian Foster's firm ideology of combination building and the lack of depth at 10 will see Jordie Barrett walk into the 15 jersey, even with five broken bones. Emerging fullbacks such as Ruben Love and Zarn Sullivan will need to remain patient, Barrett will be able to move to midfield at the conclusion of the World Cup. If any injuries were to strike, Beauden Barrett would take his younger brother's jersey, while Josh Moorby could be a potential bolter for the team.
Caleb Clarke and Will Jordan are certain to combine with Barrett as the wingers, it will be great to see the both of them arrive at the World Cup in a rich vein of form. Considering Jordan's history, it wouldn't be surprising him to score 5 tries or more in the tournament; perhaps he could break the shared record of 8 tries in a tournament?
Almost any random winger picked out of Super Rugby would be good enough to start for the All Blacks, but with George Bridge rumoured to be heading overseas, this would invalidate his share of the 11 depth chart and mean Reece commands the second-most minutes at both the left and right wing jerseys. Leicester Fainga'anuku hasn't quite developed at test level yet, but his versatility will mean he most likely wins a spot over Mark Telea, who is also eligible for South Africa and Samoa thanks to heritage.
Full Predicted Squad:
Hookers: Samisoni Taukei'aho, Codie Taylor, Asafo Aumua
Props: Ethan de Groot, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, George Bower, Tyrel Lomax, Nepo Laulala, Fletcher Newell
Locks: Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Tupou Vaa'i
Loose Forwards: Shannon Frizell, Sam Cane, Dalton Papali'i, Ardie Savea, Hoskins Sotutu
Halfbacks: Aaron Smith, Finlay Christie, Folau Fakatava
First-Fives: Richie Mo'unga, Beauden Barrett, Damian McKenzie
Midfielders: David Havili, Rieko Ioane, Anton Lienert-Brown, Alex Nankivell (uncapped)
Outside Backs: Caleb Clarke, Leicester Fainga'anuku, Sevu Reece, Will Jordan, Jordie Barrett