By Tom Vinicombe of RugbyPass.com
Less than a week after the All Blacks capped off their year with a win over Argentina, heads are already turning to the future.
On Thursday morning, New Zealand's five Super Rugby franchises all unveiled their squads for the 2021 season.
Providing Covid doesn't again cause complications, each club is set to play at least 13 matches next year, including eight against NZ teams and five against the Australian sides.
As has become tradition, the five New Zealand squads are all massive, with each franchise naming close to 40 players.
Amongst the almost 200 players selected in total, there are certainly a few men who will count themselves lucky to have been offered a contract for next year. That's not necessarily because they haven't played well – it might be because they haven't played at all.
There are also a number of players across NZ who will be wondering what they need to do to earn some recognition.
So which players have, perhaps, achieved beyond their means, and who were the poor sods who will be feeling somewhat glum having missed out for next year?
Unlucky – The old dogs
When Covid struck, rugby clubs around the world were thrown into chaos. Thankfully, New Zealand were able to get things relatively under control and get the game back running fairly quickly. That enticed plenty of former Super Rugby players back home to NZ and helped significantly bring up the experience of some of the nation's Mitre 10 Cup squads – but they've still not been rewarded with Super Rugby spots for next season.
Liam Messam, Adam Thomson, Patrick Osborne, Sona Taumalolo and Nasi Manu have all won Super Rugby or World Cup titles and added plenty of interest to this year's provincial competition – but the impetus they brought on the field and the wisdom they provided off the park hasn't been enough for any of the quintet to make returns to Super Rugby.
It's a similar story for the likes of Jamie Mackintosh, Quentin MacDonald, Kieron Fonotia and Baden Kerr. At least 36-year-old former All Black Bryn Evans has bucked the trend, earning a place with the Highlanders.
Lucky – The young guns
While New Zealand sides haven't resisted selecting young players over the past few years, it still always comes as a surprise when teenagers manage to bag themselves Super Rugby contracts.
Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens and Ruben Love both represented the New Zealand Secondary Schools side in 2019 – and both have earned spots in Super Rugby squads for next season.
The former, who's already played for the All Blacks Sevens, was handed ample minutes for Taranaki throughout the Mitre 10 Cup and finished the competition as the third-highest try-scorer.
Opportunities weren't quite as forthcoming for Love, however – but the utility back still managed to score with his first touch of the ball for Wellington.
Ratumaitavaki-Kneepkens has been snapped up by the Blues, who have shown they're not afraid to look outside their catchment area for talent, while Love will play for his local Hurricanes.
Unlucky – Lincoln McClutchie
For every schoolboy star who quickly takes the step up to Super Rugby, there's another who's left sitting in the stands wondering where they fell short.
McClutchie was an absolute standout first five for a formidable Hasting Boys' High School side that included the likes of Folau Fakatava, Kini Naholo, Danny Toala and Devan Flanders. When McClutchie missed out on a contract last year, he headed to Japan to hone his craft under the tutelage of Marty Banks.
Despite Hawke's Bay's successful Mitre 10 Cup season, McClutchie has again found himself without a contract. Still just 21, there's still plenty of time for McClutchie to make a splash at Super Rugby level – but that will be little consolation for the Magpie.
Lucky – Laghlan McWhannell
A few months earlier, following a Super Rugby season review, Laghlan McWhannell would have found himself on the opposite side of this list.
The 22-year-old lock first earned a contract for the Chiefs for 2019 following a successful stint with the side during the 2018 Brisbane Tens. An injury during club football invalided the Cambridge-man for the season, however. It was a similar story in 2020, with injury again preventing McWhannell from taking the field for the Chiefs – and also ruling him out from Waikato's provincial season.
Even though McWhannell hasn't played a game of pro rugby in over a year – and has never established himself at provincial level, let alone Super Rugby, the Chiefs have seen fit to include him in the squad for next season.
Perhaps the fact that McWhannell was named Chiefs Personality of the Year indicates how highly the young second-rower is regarded.
Unlucky – Tony Lamborn
Southland's talismanic captain has been one of the greatest provincial success stories of the year.
Despite the presence of Blake Gibson and Dalton Papalii in the Blues, Lamborn still accrued some solid minutes for the rejuvenated Auckland side, and then the USA representative galvanised his Southland team to comfortably their best finish in the Mitre 10 Cup in years.
After a paltry three wins from four years' worth of matches, the Stags surprised fans up and down the country by banking another three victories in 2020 alone. They also came within a few points of beating Bay of Plenty, Waikato and Northland.
Some of that improvement must be accredited to their fearless leader, who helped his side swing well about their weight-grade.
The Blues' recruitment of Dillon Hunt meant there was no space for Lamborn in the north, while the rest of the nation's sides are also well-stocked in the loose forwards department – especially on the openside flank.
Lucky – Jermaine Ainsley
Three years ago, the Highlanders signed Australian-born Tyrel Lomax from the Melbourne Rebels and were confident that the tighthead prop could be a long-term mainstay in the pack. After two seasons in the deep south, Lomax headed for greener pastures.
Figuring that they could do a little better this time, the Highlanders have now added former Rebel Jermaine Ainsley to their propping stocks – despite Ainsley already having played for Australia.
Ainsley was born in Cromwell and schooled at Otago Boys' High, so it's a homecoming of sorts for the tighthead – but the Wallaby will have to put some mighty fine performances on the park to convince many fans that there weren't better local talents available.
Adding insult to injury, Ainsley's three caps for Australia mean that he is counted as one of the team's three foreign players, preventing someone like inspiration former captain Nasi Manu from being picked up.
Unlucky – Fletcher Smith
What has this man got to do to earn some respect from New Zealand's Super Rugby coaches?
In 2018 and 2019, Smith was nominated for the provincial player of the season on the back of some exceptional performances for Waikato during the Mitre 10 Cup. Injuries dogged his season this year, but the former Highlander and Hurricane still significantly boosted Waikato's performances when he was on the park.
His shift north from Otago at the end of 2017 seemed to spark life into the 25-year-old's career and there was every reason to believe that he could be a genuine starting option in Super Rugby. That's never eventuated, however, with Smith sharing minutes with Jackson Garden-Bachop at the Hurricanes, and never overly impressing during his few starting stints.
Looking through the new Super Rugby squads, it's difficult to determine how Smith isn't one of the top 15 first fives in the country – but there are the rumours that the Christchurch-born pivot has signed to play in Japan. Whether that was because he wasn't picked up by a Super side is anyone's guess.
Lucky – Simon Hickey
Simon Hickey burst onto the scene for the Blues in 2014 and there was again genuine hope in the region that the long-time suffering Aucklanders had finally found someone to lead their side out of the depths of the Super Rugby basement.
Not much more than a year later, Hickey had signed to play in France. A short stint with Edinburgh followed, where the 26-year-old never looked out of his depth – but also never shone in the gloomy conditions.
Upon returning home to New Zealand earlier this year, the Hurricanes quickly snapped the Aucklander up, seemingly as a replacement for the injured and retiring James Marshall.
While no one should doubt Hickey's ability, questions will be rightly be asked how the former King's College student managed to break back into the Super Rugby ranks after not stepping foot on a rugby field in New Zealand in almost five years.
Since signing for the Hurricanes, Hickey has returned to Auckland and spent the better part of the season backing up Harry Plummer.
With Smith now excess requirements in New Zealand's capital, Hickey will compete with Jackson Garden-Bachop to start in the Hurricanes No. 10 jersey.
Unlucky – Josh McKay
There's no doubt that big things were expected of Josh McKay when he finished his schooling at Christchurch Boys' High School.
Between McKay and Will Jordan, opposition First XVs were flummoxed with how to deal with the pace and power of the two utility backs. McKay quickly asserted himself at Mitre 10 Cup level, then the Highlanders came calling.
Fans thought that the converted fullback could be the second-coming of Israel Dagg – or even Ben Blair, at a pinch. McKay, however, never nailed down a starting spot with the Highlanders and now finds himself without a fulltime contract for 2021.
Perhaps McKay isn't the safest defender on the pitch, but it's impossible to deny his outrageous x-factor when watching him play for Canterbury. His performances in the latter half of the season – especially in the final two weeks – played a big role in preventing the provincial behemoths from facing relegation.