The Lions hit All Black shores in June next year and will be the obvious highlight of the 2017 season.
But while the build-up to the Lions tour will rise to fever pitch, we’re already feeling a few tingles of anticipation about other All Black developments in 2017.
Here are the five biggest reasons to look forward to a bumper season in black next year.
5. Exciting New Combinations
There is pretty much zero doubt that the Wellington Hurricanes backline will set the championship alight in the Super 18. Jordie Barrett, youngest of the House of Barrett, joins brother Beauden at the Canes, and is likely to play outside him at second-five eighth.
Jordie is an All Black age group captain and was a non-playing apprentice on the most recent All Black northern tour. Standing at 1.96m with the pace of Beauden, he could be in line for a test debut in 2017. Further along the Canes train, fans will no doubt be delighted to see the hot-stepping genius of Nehe Milner-Skudder return from a long-term shoulder injury and is likely to step into the No. 15 jersey vacated by long serving James Marshall, who has moved to London Irish.
Another new combination which won’t be lacking in size will be the likely Sonny Bill Williams and Rieko Ioane midfield combo at the Auckland Blues. Ioane made his test debut on the All Black tour and acquitted himself well, and his pace and power running off SBW’s shoulder may see the Blues finally emerge as a genuine title force this season.
4. Young Stars Coming Of Age
One of the reasons why Israel Dagg, Ben Smith and Aaron Cruden are considering European offers is the uncertainty they may feel in holding off the challenges posed by the up-and-coming young stars in New Zealand rugby. While all three would be certainties to make any 2017 All Black squad, the pressure from the likes of Richie Mo’unga, Damian McKenzie, Melani Nanai and Rieko Ioane will only intensify as the younger players’ games mature.
Mo’unga had a huge season stepping into the golden boots of Dan Carter at the Crusaders, and showed such poise, pace and assurance throughout his rookie season that he received a Barbarians call-up to play South Africa late in the season. This season looms as a crucial third Super 18 season for McKenzie. He was sensational in the early rounds of the Super 18 last year and earned his first All Blacks cap during the Rugby Championship game against Argentina.
The challenge for him and his coaches is to find where his outrageous skills and vision are best utilised without exposing his light frame too much defensively. There are murmurs that halfback could be a possibility to explore this season. Melani Nanai was another to impress last season after battling to earn a first team position at the Blues.
He has a touch of Israel Folau about his gliding, elusive running game, and he impressed hugely for the Barbarians against South Africa. Expect him to make an All Blacks squad in 2017, especially if the aforementioned established All Blacks decide to chase the Euro next year.
3. The Search For Fresh Loose Forward Legs
All Black captain Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino may cast an envious eye at David Pocock’s Instagram updates from his $AU750,000-a-year sabbatical in 2017. Both All Black warhorses had huge workloads last term and the wear and tear began to show on the northern tour, with both players exerting less influence and dominance than usual.
Liam Squire established himself as a worthy All Black last season, but other contenders such as Elliot Dixon did not cement first squad places. Akira Ioane and Steven Luatua are the two players next mostly likely to deputise at No. 6 and 8 for Read and Kaino. Both are very similar players, with Ioane possessing greater explosive pace and power, and Luatua more versatility and a higher work rate. Or will another contender emerge from the New Zealand player production line?
2. Battles For Starting Jerseys
The ‘friendly’ rivalry between TJ Perenara and Aaron Smith for the No. 9 All Black jersey will be one to watch in 2017. Perenara finished last season as the new incumbent, but Aaron Smith is a huge competitor and if he can clear his mental horizons, expect these two to raise each others’ games to even higher levels than last year.
The battle for wing positions is also wide open, with Julian Savea needing a strong Super 18 campaign to solidify his position after an up and down 2016. Nehe Milner-Skudder, Israel Dagg, Waisake Naholo Melani Nanai and Rieko Ioane are all top class contenders in the wider channels.
At centre, expect some experimentation by Steve Hansen as he looks to find the combination to take the team through to the 2019 World Cup. Anton Lienert-Brown is a certainty after his sensational debut international season, and Sonny Bill Williams, Ryan Crotty, Jordie Barrett, George Moala, Malakai Fekitoa, Rieko Ioane and Jack Goodhue form a potent selection pool of experienced and youthful high class players.
1. Taming The Lions (?)
Hard to know if a question mark is needed, but on the back of a northern tour which saw a resurgence in Six Nations form, the All Blacks’ hold on world dominance looked much more tenuous at the end of 2016. Much will depend on the Six Nations and the mix of form and injury-free players which emerge for Warren Gatland.
The All Blacks team also has a degree of uncertainty as established stars weigh up the riches offered abroad against being part of All Black history at home. The gruelling schedule given to the Lions will be punishing, but the squad is likely to have enough youth to stand the ten games in five weeks.
Bring on 2017 – there’s a lot to look forward to.
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