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Opinion – Exodus 2023 and what it means

All Blacks Beauden Barrett, left, and Aaron Smith

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Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith.
Photo: RNZ / Ian Telfer

Opinion – Last night was a big old news dump for rugby.

Proving that Japan now not only has a monopoly on where the All Blacks are headed eventually, but also that NZ teams’ press releases are now done on Tokyo time, it was confirmed that Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith would be leaving after the Rugby World Cup to play for Toyota Verblitz.

You now almost need two hands to count how many players are departing after the All Blacks’ campaign in France, plus an extra digit for what almost certainly looks like an exit for coach Ian Foster.

While these mass exits are nothing new, as test rugby players have fitted their careers around going out on the biggest stage at the end of every World Cup cycle, it’s that last bit that makes this one certainly feel a lot different.

Barrett and Smith will leave as the most capped backs to ever play for the All Blacks. Smith has a pretty decent case for being the greatest halfback ever, while Barrett is the only man to have won World Rugby Player of the Year twice in a row. Their departures aren’t that great a shock given the length of their careers, but they’re going to leave a pretty big hole.

Richie Mo’unga of New Zealand during the test against Springboks 2022.

Richie Mo’unga.

They’re being joined in the Japanese League One by Richie Mo’unga, meaning that next year whoever is coaching the All Blacks will have to find a new first five – a position the All Blacks haven’t been in for quite some time given that Barrett’s career overlapped with Dan Carter so much that he was well established by the time he got chucked a starting jersey.

This time though, there is a reasonable gap between Barrett, Mo’unga and whoever comes next. It’s just as wide between Smith and his potential successors, although at least a couple of them have had test experience.

That’s why NZ Rugby’s decision to go early on naming who will be coaching whoever that new inside back duo is probably does need to happen sooner rather than later – despite the angst it’s already causing. It’s hard not to feel sorry for Foster right now, given the fact that NZR board even contemplating breaking with tradition around the way the All Black coach gets named means that they’ve already seemingly lost faith in him.

Which is odd, given how resoundingly unanimous they appeared to be back in July of last year, when the side had overcome a shocking start to the season to rebound and win a classic against the Springboks at Ellis Park. We were told that Foster was the man, even if his awkward physical interaction with Mark Robinson suggested that the NZR chief executive wasn’t exactly in complete agreement.

So given this quite dramatic turn of events, coupled with Ardie Savea not even bothering to hide his motivations for heading to play in Japan (albeit temporarily), this is starting to look like a very odd World Cup year.

Ian Foster

All Blacks coach Ian Foster.
Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Foster’s group certainly contains players whose careers are tethered to his fortunes. Those players will no doubt see the writing on the wall once the NZR board make their call on the coaching future, so will likely be on the phone to their agents before then anyway.

That’s why we probably haven’t seen the end of the exodus yet. But we will have a decent idea by the time the test season starts in July, at this stage in Mendoza against Argentina. 2023 will be the first time in 47 years that Eden Park will not host the All Blacks, with women’s football taking precedence, so the first time the Springboks will visit New Zealand in four years will see them play at Mt Smart Stadium.

But really, the big scheduling news is that the Bledisloe Cup is actually tipped in favour of the Wallabies for the first time in a while. The first test will be played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, then the second at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin – a ground the All Blacks put in one of their worst performances ever in the second test loss to Ireland last year.

If those tests and the Bledisloe are lost for the first time in 20 years, the exodus may well be starting early.

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