The All Blacks’ back three history is littered with king slayers (and the occasional miraculous comeback)
There was something of a storm last week when Rieko Ioane was selected ahead of Julian Savea for the All Blacks’ first test against the British & Irish Lions, but the truth is that the world’s greatest rugby playing nation has a history of discarding its star names seemingly at the height of their powers for new (and often even more explosive) models.
Occasionally — as in the case of Israel Dagg — they make the adjustments necessary to rise from the ashes of their previous mistakes.
Sometimes — as may be the case with Rieko Ioane and Julian Savea - the young pretender is just too irresistable not to take the throne from the old king for good…
It’s early yet to make that assumption, but let’s take a look back:
Christian Cullen is regarded by many as the best fullback ever to pick up a rugby ball, and yet his international career ended around his 27th Birthday: a series of injuries and a combustable relationship with then-AB’s coach John Mitchell seeing the steady hand of Leon McDonald and the blazing talents of a young Mils Muliaina preferred for the 2003 World Cup.
Muliaina’s pace, flair and finishing power eventually ousted McDonald’s sensible tactical game and he went on to win 100 caps before, 30 years old and considered one of the leaders of the squad, he was ousted at the 2011 World Cup by the then 23 year-old Israel Dagg.
Injury and a poor run of form then saw Dagg replaced by Ben Smith who still holds the jersey today and captained the All Blacks to a recent international rollocking of Samoa…but with Smith now 31 and Dagg back to his best, with young pretenders Damien Mckenzie and Jordie Barrett also breathing down his neck, how long he’ll hold on to the position is a matter of doubt…
Jeff Wilson was a fixture for a good nine years, moving around the back three to cover injuries to Lomu and Cullen and accommodate talents like Tana Umaga before he moved into the centres and such short lived All Blacks as Joeli Vidiri and Caleb Ralph. On his second retirement (still aged only 28) his place was finally taken by flyer Doug Howlett — still the All Blacks record try scorer but Savea isn’t far behind — who held it until the 2007 World Cup despite challenges from the likes of consistently brilliant rival Rico Gear.
Howlett lost his place aged 29 to a combination of Sitiveni Sivivatu and Joe Rokocoko (more on them later) whose occasional lack of tactical nous led them to be replaced by converted Fullback Cory Jane.
Despite Jane winning over 50 caps and even playing for New Zealand into his 30s, the 14 shirt has been a bit of a poisoned chalice in recent years: when New Zealand won the World Cup in 2011 the jersey swapped between Jane, Richard Kahui and Sonny Bill Williams — neither of the latter considered specialist wingers.
Similarly in the run up to 2015 Fullback Charles Piutau notched up the most appearances before being supplanted by the brilliant Nehe Milner Skudder and Waisake Naholo, both of whom embarked on runs of injuries that saw none other than ex New Zealand fullback Israel Dagg drafted in for the 2016 Rugby Championship where, injury woes behind him, his performances improved and he looked to leave behind his perceived weaknesses in defence in addition to finessing his blistering attacking game, which yielded 10 tries in 12 tests in 2016 before last week’s brilliant performance against the Lions.
Jonah Lomu is perhaps the most iconic rugby player of all time. His injuries and illness were well documented but he can be considered the nominal incumbent of the All Black Number 11 jersey (while a cast of Wilson, Umaga, Cullen and later Howlett rotated around the other back 3 positions andoutside centre) from around 1995–2003, when Lomu’s kidney finally gave out and the explosive young Joe Rokocoko was catapulted into his place.
Somkin’ Joe scored 17 test tries in his first international season to establish himself in the jersey before the great Lomu’s 28th Birthday.
Rokocoko himself was an All Black until 2010 — during which time he swapped the jersey with his ‘cousin’ Sitiveni Sivivatu — with the other often playing right wing. The turning point for those two in my mind was a disastrous Tri Nations defeat to South Africa in which both were selected on the wings and had a very poor game under the barrage of kicking from Morne Steyn and relentless pressure from their opposite numbers JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana. Rokocoko moved to France aged 27 in 2010 with Sivivatu joining him a year later having failed to make the World Cup squad. Both spent a good half decade after being declared surplus to All Blacks requirement being praised (along with the likes of Doug Howlett) as the finest wingers in European rugby.
Their first replacement wasa player of surprisingly similar style: Hosea Gear — brother of Rico and hailed as one of the best wingers in the world in 2010 but whose form and one-dimensional style cut short his All Blacks endeavours, with Gear only a late (non-playing) replacement at the 2011 World Cup before his appearances became more sparse and, again, he was in France before his 29th Birthday.
The victorious 2011 squad revealed a preference for less physically explosive but more tactically savvy players who could cover centre and full back. New Zealand’s left wings for that victorious World Cup campaign were the talented but injury-prone utility back Isaia Toeava, and Zac Guildford — prodigiously talented and brilliant in that tournament but lacking the all blacks attitude and bit of luck needed for long term success. A recent BBC article documented the decline of his career after the death of his father, during which alcohol and related bad behaviour became overriding factors in unsuccessful spells in France and Australia. Age 28 he no longer even plays professionally.
His replacement was Julian Savea who, since crashing on to the international scene in 2012, has been considered the best try-scoring winger in the world and who, with 46 test tries, is threatening Doug Howlett’s All Black record — more so until his droppping for the undeniably prodigious Ioane. Will he regain the jersey? Don’t count him out he’s not even 27 yet, but history shows that that first droppping for a big test can be significant…..
It’s a tradition that’s been brutal on some of the best players of the professional era but one that shows the strength of New Zealand rugby. The ocean-deep pool of talent, the prioritisation of the team above individuals, and the ruthless lack of sentiment sometimes required to get that win. Ioane may have made a flying start to his reign as the All Blacks first choice game breaker, but the countdown to the unveiling of his next brilliant rival has already begun.