Rugby: A glimpse at the next All Blacks generation

By Gregor Paul in Rome

It was Steve Hansen who masterminded the big 68-10 win in Rome, but ultimately it might not be him who benefits most from it.

The bulk of the team that played Italy have 2020 written all over them. Many of them will play tests between now and then, but it will be following the inevitable post 2019 World Cup clean out that the guts of this team come together again as first choice All Blacks.

Building the next generation is viewed by Hansen as a significant part of his role. He's building a team for the here and now as his main priority - but somewhere in his thinking is the need to slowly develop a core group of players who will reach 2020 with enough experience and ability to ensure the All Blacks can safely transition out of 2019 when a number of senior players are almost certainly going to call it quits.

It is what he did between 2012 and 2015: he carefully introduced and then slowly built the experience of the likes of Sam Cane, Beauden Barrett, Malakai Fekitoa, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Cruden to the point where all of them had reasonable and in some cases extensive exposure to test football before this year.

That continuity has been vital in the All Blacks' success and the test in Rome was the first major step in the new continuity plan.

Codie Taylor's immaculate lineout work, high work rate and powerful defence were signs he will seamlessly succeed Dane Coles when the time comes.

Patrick Tuipulotu was all the better for his experience against Ireland and carried with the sort of leg drive and athleticism that the coaches hoped to see. He worked hard off the ball, too and stole a couple of lineouts and in time he could develop to the point where he is pushing Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick to start.

Both Elliot Dixon and Steven Luatua had the necessary physical presence and skills to make big contributions - although the latter was hit with cramp in the last 15 minutes and had to stay on as there were no more replacements left.

Anton Leinert-Brown and Malakai Fekitoa clicked as a midfield combination. The composure and timing of the former was a factor in bringing out the best in the latter.

Fekitoa, after a difficult season which saw him regress, was showing signs of being his former self.

He was more direct and decisive - hitting the ball harder and at better angles. Damian McKenzie took enough risks to be a handful but not so many as to endanger his team and crucially, he looked after the ball better.

A try-scoring début from the 19-year-old Rieko Ioane confirmed he has the power and awareness to play at the highest level and the assured and strong captaincy of Sam Cane brought it all together.

With the exception of Dixon, all of those players are 25 or younger and not only could they form the backbone of the All Blacks side in 2020, many of them could push on to 2023.

Hansen may have built his successor a ready-made test side - one that is still young, relatively experienced and highly capable.

"We have got 18 new players from last year's World Cup squad and obviously that is a lot," said Hansen. "The group is just starting out and they are playing very well. But they tasted defeat in our last game prior to this one so it will be interesting to see how they grow from that.

"But the expectation within the All Blacks is that the next generation is always better than the one before."

- NZ Herald

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