The one-two punch that could spark the All Blacks attack

New Zealand have two gun running backs running through the ranks who could prove crucial for the All Blacks‘ chances after the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Ian Foster used four running backs throughout last year’s campaign: Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Brad Weber and Finlay Christie. With three number 9s likely to be selected for next year’s showpiece event, the smart money would be on just one of last year’s harvests missing on the flight to France.

But after 2023, it is very possible that New Zealand’s three most senior scrum-halves will all call time in their Test rugby careers.

Smith, 33, is the oldest and most experienced of the trio and is emerging as a key figure in the All Blacks’ quest to win back the William Webb Ellis Cup next year. Although he is not yet showing major signs of abandonment and his family is well settled in New Zealand so overseas business may not be on the cards, but with two young children, Smith may well find himself ready to spend time on his regular overseas trips and his time away from home.

Weber, 31, and Perenara, 30, could have a few more years of professional rugby after the tournament France but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the two take advantage of the money offered in Japan and fill their coffers before a long retreat.

The All Blacks traveled to Japan in 2019 with TJ Perenara, Brad Weber and Aaron Smith like their three halfbacks. (Photo by Getty Images)

Notably, the three players are out of contract at the end of 2023.

Regardless of what happens by the end of next year, it would certainly be a big surprise to see one of the three retain their place in the national team until the next World Cup in 2027 – and this means that new blood is needed.

After a mixed start to his testing career last season, Finlay Christie has been New Zealand’s in-form half-back throughout the current season Super Rugby Pacific and at 26, could become the next All Blacks No 9 in the medium term. Whoever takes on the role of head coach after Ian Foster, however, will be looking to bring in talent who can put some heat on Christie and perhaps take on as the world-class Aaron Smith’s long-term successor. .

While it is possible that another candidate will emerge by 2024, it seems that Folau Fakatava and Cortez Ratima could be the men to form a much-needed punch for the All Blacks in years to come.

Fakatava’s talents were already well known before the season. Had it not been for a premature ACL injury last year, it’s likely Fakatava would have been the man to make his Test debut ahead of Christie.

He’s unreal… nobody plays rugby like they play rugby; he can beat anyone in a phone booth and create for other players.

Tony Brown on Folau Fakatava

While the 22-year-old, born in Tonga, had an inauspicious start supporting Smith at the mountaineers the season – not surprising, given that he was on the return from such major surgery – he started to come into its own as the campaign progressed and was back to his effervescent best on the bench in the Highlanders’ victory over the Reds in Queensland on Friday evening.

Fakatava came into the game with his team six points behind on the scoreboard and 25 minutes left on the clock. A brilliant pass without a look in the back for Scott Gregory after just five minutes on the pitch, created a try for the Highlanders and Fakatava used his vision and strength to score one of his own six minutes later and put the game beyond reach for the home side.

“Folau is one of our best impact players…Aaron Smith had a big change and we needed energy and impact,” Highlanders coach Tony Brown said after the game.

“He’s unreal… nobody plays rugby like they play rugby; he can beat anyone in a phone booth and create for other players.

Folau Fakatava scored a crucial try for the Highlanders in their win over the Reds. (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

Smith also praised his young teammate.

“I told him at half-time: ‘Get ready man, you’re fine’ and ‘Take him home’, and he did just that. Folau is a great talent and I can’t help it. say more than he [showed] this evening. His impact on the game won us the match.

Fakatava has been on the Test selection radar for several seasons and while his current international eligibility is still being determinedthere have been suggestions he could make the move this season, now that he’s fit and shooting again.

A leftmost selection would be Chiefs half Cortez Ratimaa man few outside of high-performance channels had heard of before Waikato’s victorious run in the NPC last year.

Earlier in the season, Ratima was called up to the New Zealand Under-20 squad despite barely playing rugby during the year due to a shoulder injury. suffered at the end of the previous provincial campaign.

He’s making a good fist of his trade right now, but we really, really like where we think Cortez can go.

Clayton McMillan on Cortez Ratima

Ratima was the first-choice No. 9 for the Baby Blacks and became Waikato’s number one scrum-half when Xavier Roe was sidelined and has now racked up plenty of minutes for the Chiefs in his first Super Rugby year.

At present, Ratima is not up to the test – no major surprise – but the 21-year-old has shown some insight into why he is so popular with men in the know . Like Fakatava, Ratima is a bullet-in-hand threat. He’s quick enough to pause around the ruck but also strong enough to push his way through tackles and wait for support.

“He is abrasive, he has this ability to wear when there is nothing else and to buy a little time”, Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan said after Ratima’s debut off the bench against the crusaders earlier this year.”

“We think he’s a real player for the future” McMillan said after the team’s first nomination. “He’s making a good fist of his craft right now, but we really, really like where we think Cortez can go.”

Has Ratima done enough to warrant All Blacks selection this season ahead of someone like TJ Perenara or his Chiefs teammate Brad Weber? Right now, he might not be up to par with those two players, but when the 2023 World Cup kicks off, that might not necessarily be the case.

Cortez Ratima slowly grew in his game with the Chiefs in his first Super Rugby season. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Even Aaron Smith, arguably the best half-back the world has ever seen, didn’t make his Test debut until the age of 23, two years into the depths of his Super Rugby career and starting regularly for the Highlanders. But, from the moment he donned the No.9 All Blacks shirt, he established himself as the first-choice scrum-half and by the end of the season it was already being talked about as one of the best players around. of the world.

As the 2023 World Cup kicks off, Ratima doesn’t need to beat the best scrum-half in the world to qualify for an early call-up this season – he just needs to be one of the top three. No. 9 in New Zealand.

Fakatava is unquestionably ahead of him in the pecking order, but he might not be eligible until next year and it would take a brave coach to blood a new half-back in a World Cup year – although the Smith’s rapid rise in 2012 shows that wouldn’t necessarily be the case. to be completely unreasonable.

There is a very clear possibility that neither Fakatava nor Ratima will be called up before the World Cup – with the coaches opting for the status quo and sticking with three of the four men they have employed in the No.9 shirt since the tournament 2019. . But after the next tournament, it’s hard not to imagine these two young halves in what is likely to be a relatively young All Blacks side with a new head boss.

Folau Fakatava and Cortez Ratima both offer quick passing to ignite the baseline, physical running play and are abrasive in defense. Crucially, they are also slowly developing their kicking ability – an area where New Zealand half-backs have long ranked behind their Northern opponent. Two years from now, the combination could offer a threat similar to what the All Blacks took away from Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara/Tawera Ker-Barlow in the mid-2010s, and that bodes well for the team during the greater part of the next decade.

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