Former All Blacks coach Sir Steve Hansen. Photo / Photosport
In the midst of Sir Steve Hansen’s nudge at New Zealand Rugby in defense of Ian Foster, there was a reference that could make All Blacks fans’ blood run cold.
it was a shot
in the recent results of the New Zealand under-20 rugby team in the world championship. It’s proven breeding ground for future All Blacks and the early germination of the aura of rugby superiority that All Blacks teams have carried with them over the years – which many feel is now threatened.
Hansen told Today FM, accusing NZR of not doing their job properly: “The high performance department must be squirming at the moment because of our record at the under-20 level. They started at the under-20 level in 2008, we won the top four and we won one in 2015 and 2017, and since then we’ve finished seventh and fourth. England and France dominated the tournament. Are we doing that part of our business right? I don’t think so.”
The scary part isn’t so much what Hansen said, but what he didn’t say. One of the criticisms leveled at Foster has been the lack of change and innovation in the selection and game plans. New and younger players were used so sparingly on last year’s North Tour and Irish series that it’s hard to know what they can and can’t do in the intensity of a test match against world-class opponents.
Underneath it all, there was constant murmuring about the comparative quality of some of the new players making it to the top tier now – perhaps symptomatic of a game losing potential talent because of its physical, defense-dominated nature.
Those covering the sport have written volumes about the dangers of professionalizing school rugby and the dilution of club and province rugby (where late developers were often found). There has also been unease from players, media and fans over the game’s evolution into a sport dominated by big, fast, muscular athletes designed to win collisions – discouraging others who, in previous years, stayed in the game and climbed the ranks.
The old adage that rugby is a game for all shapes and sizes is on its way to obsolescence, and to make matters worse, there’s still a steady stream of foreign “second-string” clubs – players who haven’t made it to the All Blacks. For some reason, Bundee Aki and James Lowe come to mind; Aki played a good hand for Ireland against the All Blacks; his homeland could use his midfield services now. Aki never made it to the under-20s.
Perhaps this is one explanation for Foster’s reluctance so far to give many of the new players consistent playtime ahead of the World Cup. If so, it’s a pretty worrying mindset and you’d have to say that Hansen is right about NZR.
In 2018 and 2019, the under-20s finished fourth and seventh respectively (the world championships were not held in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic). The latter was New Zealand’s worst result, including a 24-0 loss to Australia.
2019 coach Craig Philpott told the media that Northern Hemisphere teams were better prepared: “…we’re playing teams that are generally better-conditioned athletes. They’re on full-time professional programs in some cases. , for up to three years. Our at best, guys are usually a year old, so there is often a difference in fitness from strength, but we have to adapt our game to that level and still maintain what is special about rugby of New Zealand”.
The 2020 and 2021 class didn’t get a chance to test themselves against the best in the north – and you wonder what that could mean for the All Blacks’ upcoming selections. There are cycles in the sport and some years and some teams are just not as good as they used to be. But our “way” boys haven’t hit the mark lately, while all the other problems mentioned still apply. If the answer is to accelerate and apply professional programs even younger, or longer, how can that exacerbate these other problems?
The squads for the 2018 and 2019 under-20s included 10 to 12 names each who became Super Rugby regulars. Of the fourth-place finisher in 2018, only three have qualified for the All Blacks and perhaps only one can be called top tier so far: Caleb Clarke, Hoskins Sotutu and Leicester Fainga’anuku. Of the 2019 roster, Cullen Grace, Quinn Tupaea, Tupou Vaa’i and Fletcher Newell became All Blacks, the latter has yet to play a match.
This is probably how it should be – not everyone can be an All Black, obviously. However, scroll through the under-20 squads from 2008 onwards (when the world championships started) and there are a large number of unknown names. What happened to them and their rugby careers?
Clearly, the supply line and assembly line need attention to get the All Blacks machine back to its best performance – and perhaps the Foster era needs to be seen, at least a little, in that light.
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