After a bumpy 2020 from the All Blacks, Liam Napier assesses which players progressed and regressed.
Maiden but brief starting debut in the Brisbane defeat, when shunted to the bench after Ofa Tu'ungafasi's red card, hinted he was ready. Ioane then confirmed he has, indeed, turned a corner with his performance in the Newcastle heat. Always a strong ball carrier, Ioane's work-rate and set piece duties are most pleasing. Against the Pumas he won seven lineouts, adding another dimension to this area of the All Blacks game. He also made nine tackles, 10 carries, won two turnovers in a breakout performance that leaves the No 6 jersey his to lose. Given the mental health challenges Ioane has overcome, it would be especially satisfying should he now kick on to command the starting role.
Labouring with his father to a surprise call up for the Chiefs, and onto the All Blacks, Vaa'i never seemed overawed. Every chance he was afforded he took. Vaa'i finished his debut year with four caps, one start and one well-taken try late in the Brisbane defeat. Calm at the set piece, the 20-year-old's powerful frame has a big future.
Test debuts don't get any better; father Eroni's proud smile in the Eden Park stands resonating with us all. That balmy Sunday afternoon, Clarke announced his arrival to the globe. In the coveted 11 jersey he has since been largely well contained, though far more involved in the final response against the Pumas. The All Blacks could use him better in the air, where he is supreme with the ball above his head, and in space rather than a battering ram role. Positional play could improve, but Clarke's imposing presence on the left edge is here to stay.
Began the season behind Codie Taylor; finished in the starting role. Coles' influence on and off the field cannot be understated. He wears his heart on his sleeve, speaks his mind, plays with pure passion. One brain snap aside, when he retaliated by slapping an Argentine opponent, Coles was back to his best; accurate at the set piece and claiming tries on the wing as he loves to do.
Two tries in two minutes against the Pumas left a profound impression, confirming what we already knew – that Jordan possesses an innate ability to find the line with the ball invariably bouncing in his hands. In this regard, he performs a similar role to the one Beauden Barrett once did off the All Blacks bench. Expect to see plenty more of Jordan in 2021, too.
Joined the squad late after staying in New Zealand for the birth of his son. Started off the bench in the first loss to the Pumas but, in his return to the starting side the following week, made his presence felt with a busy ball carrying performance and dominant scrummaging to crush his inexperienced opponent.
Celebrated his 50th test with one of his best iron-fisted scrummaging displays. Continues to hold off challenges from Blues props Karl Tu'inukuafe and Alex Hodgman.
From a performance perspective alone, Cane was the All Blacks' best. Consistent with dominant hits Cane, likewise, frequently featured with strong carry and cleans. Leadership wise, serious questions were asked, and he largely responded to those too.
The ever reliable second-row rock. Even in the bewildering defeat to the Pumas Whitelock repeatedly put his hand up to cart the ball forward against much bigger men who constantly flew off the line. Cane's right hand man in leading the team.
Increased the gap to the chasing halfback pack. Without his sharp delivery and option-taking, the All Blacks would not be the same.
Hit and miss
Hot and cold, much like the team's form. Mo'unga produced his best performance in the black jersey in the record Sydney victory; a 23-point masterclass. Two weeks later, with the pack beaten up by the Pumas, Mo'unga was at the heart of the predictable All Blacks attack. Consistency at this level remains his challenge, especially when the desired platform isn't there.
Significantly diluted influence this test season. Barrett combined well with Mo'unga in the Sydney victory, a pin-point chip kick laying on one the Crusaders playmaker's two tries. Otherwise, though, largely subdued compared to his brilliant best. Publicly Barrett maintains he's content to play fullback if that is what's required, but first-five, where he savours more touches and thrives challenging the line, remains his preferred position. The debate about his best role, therefore, remains stagnant as he departs for his one-season sabbatical in Japan.
Started every test for the All Blacks this year – all but one on the right wing where he struggled to make a consistent impact. Wingers are dictated by the chances created from those inside them but there is little doubt Barrett junior is more at home at fullback than on the edge. In his one start in the 15 jersey, however, Barrett did not take his chance in the Brisbane defeat. In short, a prodigiously talented conundrum.
Handed the 13 jersey to start the year in a performance overshadowed by his drop over the line, and one bad defensive read. Scored two tries in his next three appearances, two of which came from the bench. Started on the left wing in the Brisbane defeat. Will return to centre with the Blues and so, like Blues team-mate Barrett, his best role equally remains up for debate.
Finished strongly when brought back to start against the Pumas where his work-rate offered telling contributions. He will, however, regret his costly yellow card in the Brisbane defeat that prompted his dropping from the squad for the loss to the Pumas. Barrett faced a difficult task coming in cold to test rugby after a long layoff following toe surgery. The Crusaders skipper is sure to find more rhythm next season.
Led the Blues superbly this season but couldn't quite replicate that same consistent impact with the All Blacks. Featured prominently at times, only to go missing in others. This was Tuipulotu's big chance to stamp his authority as a senior, starting lock alongside Whitelock. After being relegated to the bench for the final test, it seems he didn't always nail it.
Brilliant with ball in hand, his post-contact leg-drive phenomenal to watch, but by the final test of the year Savea was under heat to retain the No 8 role with Hoskins Sotutu applying pressure. Work-rate is never an issue but Savea's front-on defence against bigger men can be exposed at times. Savea's combination with Cane also leaves the lineout lacking height.
Impressive cameos off the bench in the opening Wellington draw and Sydney victory but failed to grab his starting chance at tighthead after Ofa Tu'ungafasi's suspension, when the Pumas shunted the All Blacks scrum around. Lomax was fortunate to finish the year with a yellow card after making direct contact with the head while attempting a cleanout in the closing stages.
Waiting in the wings
Dalton Papalii, Cullen Grace, Asafo Aumua, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Du'Plessis Kirifi
All used fleetingly, if at all, with Papalii, Grace and Kirifi reflecting loose forward depth. Umaga-Jensen's sharp angled running lines offer a point of difference in his contest with injured Crusaders centre Braydon Ennor for another crack next year. Aumua is ready to rampage, but must prove his set piece efficiencies before rising to challenge Coles and Taylor.
Starting the World Cup quarterfinal and semifinal last year to one appearance this season, Reece's regression has been as swift as his arrival. With Jordie Barrett favoured and Will Jordan pushing; Clarke established, Rieko Ioane next in line on the left and fellow Crusader George Bridge to eventually return from his six-month chest jury, Reece's predicament won't change anytime soon.
Returning from a broken forearm to the test arena was always a step task. After 20 minutes off the bench in the record Sydney victory, Laumape's starting chance arrived outside Beauden Barrett in the Brisbane defeat when he struggled to bend and break the line. He was not sighted again, with Rieko Ioane preferred as midfield cover from the bench. Laumape was superb for the Hurricanes this year, playing with a chip on his shoulder. Expect him to bring that same hunger to swaying the selectors' minds. While the Jack Goodhue-Anton Lienert-Brown duo is clearly favoured, the All Blacks midfield could provide more punch.
Four starts; some good, some underwhelming. Frizell was the form No 6 through Super Rugby Aotearoa and therefore fully deserved first crack. He performed strongly at Eden Park and in Sydney, but then went missing against Argentina and lost his starting role to Akira Ioane, finishing the test year down the pecking order.
Doesn't seem to fit the mould for the quick, clearing nine the All Blacks rely so heavily on. Perenara's combative defensive strengths are valued against confrontational opposition and he has a knack for finishing tries but this test year he was often rattled off the ball. With Folau Fakatava rapidly emerging, Perenara may be looking over his shoulder on his Japanese sabbatical.
Missed opportunity to seal the starting tighthead role. Tu'ungafasi's red card was more unfortunate than malicious; his three-week suspension harsher still given the obvious mitigating circumstances of rookie Wallabies wing Tom Wright ducking into his tackle. Intentional or otherwise, Tu'ungafasi learned the hard way there is no leniency in for contact with the head.
Must be wondering when his next chance will come. McKenzie endured a difficult start at fullback in the swirling Wellington wind after being called up late in the week to replace Beauden Barrett's problematic Achilles. He was then used three times off the bench, adding minimal impact in the dual defeats, and has now fallen behind Will Jordan as outside back cover.
The distinct impression is the All Blacks don't trust him. Life as the third halfback, or hooker, is largely thankless but most observers believe Weber deserves much more time than 20 minutes in two tests off the bench this season.