Cautiously optimistic is how I feel after a year which saw the All Blacks finish with a 62%-win rate from eight wins, four losses and that draw with England. The numbers alone suggest it hasn’t been a stellar year and you can add to that the historic first ever loss to Ireland at home, and a first ever series loss and first defeat to Argentina in New Zealand.
There was also a record defeat to South Africa but the flip side of that was a superb performance at Ellis Park a week later (which meant coach Ian Foster kept his job!...), while the Bledisloe Cup was retained and the Rugby Championship won - so it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster year, and there are areas that remain perplexing or contentious but also reasons to be optimistic.
Let's break a few things down.
Hooker: Samisoni Taukei’aho is easily the All Blacks best hooker. He has an accurate throw, is a good scrummager, frightening on defence and a human wrecking ball with the ball in hand. He has to start every test. Why leave his impact for late in the game?
The Front Row: They are young and exciting. Taukei’aho 25, Ethan de Groot 24, Fletcher Newwell 22, Tyrel Lomax 26. George Bower older at 30, but a relative newcomer with 22 tests. Under the tutelage of Jason Ryan these front rowers are quickly proving they are as good as any others in the international game.
Jason Ryan: He said when he came in as forwards coach after the Ireland series that the pack was a bit dented. Well, he’s done a terrific job as a panel beater and his ability is a huge part of my cautious optimism. The All Blacks have the attack to beat most teams, but they have struggled in recent years to gain dominance up front. The progression of the pack under Ryan suggests that is no longer the case. Teams make the World Cup playoffs with the attack but win the big games through their defence. The best defence is winning and retaining the ball. The All Blacks are looking much better in that regard thanks to Ryan.
Openside and Captain: Okay, I’m not going to bag Sam Cane. He is a terrific player who is well suited to tight, tough tests, but there is more than a hint of something special about Dailton Papali’i. He is big, strong and fast, good with the ball, tough on defence and getting better at the breakdown (where Cane is immense). If Papali’i gets consistent starts leading into the World Cup, he could be a trump card in the black pack. Which leaves the question of captaincy. There are two excellent options in Sam Whitelock and Ardie Savea, so Cane should not be retained purely because he’s the captain.
First Five: It’s Richie Mo’unga. Stop the debate. Leave him there. Give him a settled backline to direct. End of story. Beauden Barrett can play fullback.
Consistency: Mo’unga has played with at least nine-second fives (I might have missed one or two) and that chopping and changing isn’t helpful. Surely now even Blind Betty knows Jordie Barrett is the best option at second five. He needs to play there for the Hurricanes, in the All Blacks Rugby Championship tests next year and throughout the World Cup. In fact, Foster has to play his top combinations in all of those games. Successful World Cups have seen the top side start in all but one of the pool games and through to the final. Combinations are a key to success.
Centre: Which brings me to centre and the big choice between Rieko Ioane and Anton Lienert-Brown. Both are excellent options and though I’ve felt Ioane was a wing playing at centre, his form this year shows he deserves to be in the midfield. Whoever Foster plumbs for, he needs to stick with them.
On the comeback: Look next year for the return from injury of Joe Moody, bringing experience and great ability to that young front row, and Ethan Blackadder, who could make blindside flanker his own and solve a niggly problem for Foster.
Lastly - stay open-minded: Jonah Lomu was initially not wanted by coach Laurie Mains in 1995 and had to be talked into taking him by Sean Fitzpatrick. He was a superstar in South Africa. In 2015 Nehe Milner-Skudder debuted for the All Blacks that year and, after a superb World Cup, was World Rugby’s breakthrough player of the year. Mark Telea played the final two tests this year. Is he the game-changer for next year? Or is there someone else who might emerge from Super Rugby? Foster has to remain open-minded.
This year’s best in black: