Monster tight five, lacking midfield

New Zealand’s long been a force in the international age grade rugby scene, but since winning seven world U20 titles between 2008 and 2017, the trophy cabinet has been lacking new additions.

With a generation of talent coming through with no world-beating experience, is there cause for further concern over the All Blacks‘ ailing world dominance?

Well, the correlation between U20 success and World Cup success isn’t all that direct. In between New Zealand’s titles, South Africa have won just once at U20 level while England have won three times, with France currently enjoying a back-to-back-to-back run. South Africa have however been very consistent with nine third placed finishes.

In terms of trends, New Zealand’s recent drop off stands out like a sore thumb.

From perennial champions to consecutive seventh placed finishes – on either side of a three year Covid hiatus – it’s worth investigating what kind of talent the Kiwis have got up their sleeve, ready to blossom for the incoming era.

To begin with the strengths, the deepest position in regards to talent stocks has got to be at lock.

Despite concerns over basketball steeling New Zealand’s tallest young athletes, there’s more quality coming through the ranks in the second row than there is at any other position.

The depth is such that names like the Crusaders’ Zach Gallagher and Jamie Hannah haven’t made this 23-man team, despite the latter dominating the carry so far in 2024, boasting a game-high number of carries in each of the defending champions’ opening two games of the season – while coming off the bench.

Two of the selected locks stand comfortably over two metres tall, and combined with two 140kg+ props starting in the team, it shapes up to be a monster tight five.

In fact, the two tallest locks and two of the three heaviest props in New Zealand’s Super Rugby Pacific teams would be eligible for U23 honours.

Perhaps the position lacking depth, or at least lacking the most proven depth, is centre.

There are very few youngsters currently pushing for more minutes at centre in Super Rugby Pacific, while in other positions there are bonafide starting quality options.

One player who promises quality at that position but is yet to see real game time in Super Rugby is Gideon Wrampling. The 22-year-old made his Chiefs debut in 2021 but suffered a knee injury in 2022 and has been biding his time behind a number of talented midfielders at the club.

Gauging what the future of the black 13 jersey looks like is a murky task as it stands.

A position to keep an eye on given the number of specialty options without a clear cut favourite is first five-eighth. With names like Josh Jacomb, Aidan Morgan, Taha Kemara, Cameron Millar and Ajay Faleafaga all prospects who may inherit a starting 10 jersey in the future.

Beyond that, there is plenty of depth throughout the different positions, including three All Blacks in the XV.

The players selected also come from a relatively even spread across the competition; The Blues lead the way with four starters and two reserves, then the Highlanders with three starters and three reserves, the Hurricanes have four starters and one reserve, the Crusaders have three starters and one reserve and the Chiefs have the least selections with one starter and one reserve.

A hypothetical New Zealand U23 team:

  1. Tamaiti Williams (23 y.o., Crusaders)
  2. George Bell (22, Crusaders)
  3. Saula Ma’u (23, Highlanders)
  4. Josh Lord (23, Chiefs)
  5. Sam Darry (23, Blues)
  6. Sean Withy (23, Highlanders)
  7. Anton Segner (22, Blues)
  8. Peter Lakai (21, Hurricanes)
  9. Cam Roigard  (23, Hurricanes)
  10. Ruben Love (22, Hurricanes)
  11. Macca Springer (20, Crusaders)
  12. Riley Higgins (21, Hurricanes)
  13. Corey Evans (23, Blues)
  14. Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens (22, Highlanders)
  15. Zarn Sullivan (23, Blues)

  1. Jack Taylor (20, Highlanders)
  2. Josh Fusitu’a (22, Blues)
  3. Seb Calder (22, Crusaders)
  4. Fabian Holland (21, Highlanders)
  5. Dominic Gardiner (22, Crusaders)
  6. Cortez Ratima (22, Chiefs)
  7. Cam Millar (21, Highlanders)
  8. Chay Fihaki (23, Crusaders)

Honourable Mentions: Caleb Tangitau (Blues), Gideon Wrampling (Chiefs), Josh Jacomb (Chiefs), Daniel Rona (Chiefs), Tyrone Thompson (Chiefs)  Aidan Morgan (Hurricanes), Harry Godfrey (Hurricanes), Noah Hotham (Crusaders),  Jamie Hannah (Crusaders), Zach Gallagher (Crusaders), Nikora Broughton (Highlanders), Ajay Faleafaga (Highlanders).


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