Graduates shine in New Zealand's perfect year

(IRB.COM) Tuesday 26 November 2013
 Graduates shine in New Zealand's perfect year
Liam Messam looks on as Aaron Cruden kicks the conversion which ensured the All Blacks' 14th win from 14 Tests in 2013

“You could call it the great escape” was how Aaron Cruden described New Zealand’s 24-22 victory over Ireland in Dublin on Sunday, the fly half kicking a touchline conversion with time up on the clock to ensure the All Blacks recorded a perfect 14 wins from 14 in 2013.

While Cruden grabbed the headlines for his match-winning kick – converted at the second attempt after Ireland charged too early on his first effort that drifted just wide – he was one of 17 players to have graduated from the IRB Junior World Championship to play a part in the perfect year.

The RWC 2011 winner would, of course, not have been in a position to convert the history-making kick had it not been for his fellow JWC graduate Ryan Crotty’s first Test try which broke Irish hearts as a first ever victory over New Zealand slipped through their grasps.

It had been another JWC graduate in Julian Savea who had earlier begun the All Blacks’ recovery from a 19-0 deficit at the Aviva Stadium, the wing making the step up to Test match rugby seem easy by touching down his 19th try in 20 international in the famous jersey.

Six JWC graduates started the match in Dublin with Crotty and Beauden Barrett joining the fray from the bench in the second half, leaving only flanker Sam Cane and the uncapped TJ Perenara to watch nervously from the bench.

New Zealand will host the IRB Junior World Championship in June 2014 and the latest crop of Baby Blacks will not have far to look for inspiration after seeing 17 players who have trod the same path as them, half of them as recently as 2011.

That was the last time New Zealand lifted the coveted trophy with Cane, Barrett, Steven Luatua, Brodie Retallick, Francis Saili, Charles Piutau, Luke Whitelock and Dominic Bird all part of the Baby Blacks team that secured a fourth successive JWC title for their country in Italy.

Production line of talent

Whitelock captained that side to JWC glory, just as Cruden had done two years earlier in Japan when he was also named IRB Junior Player of the Year after an impressive tournament. Two years later, along with Sam Whitelock and Zac Guildford, he had a Rugby World Cup winners’ medal as well.

Sam Whitelock became New Zealand’s first JWC graduate to reach 50 caps – and second overall behind Australia’s Will Genia – against England at Twickenham earlier this month and his second row partnership with Retallick is sure to continue for many years to come.

Cane, meanwhile, has shown that when Richie McCaw does decide to hang up the boots he is more than capable of filling the number seven jersey, while the absence of Daniel Carter through injury is no longer greeted by panic with Cruden, Barrett and Tom Taylor waiting in the wings.

Taylor was one of nine players to join the ranks of Junior World Championship graduates – which currently sit at nearly 270 since the tournament began in 2008 – for New Zealand in 2013, slotting seamlessly in at fly half against Australia in August when Carter, Cruden and Barrett were injured.

Another position currently awash with JWC graduates for the All Blacks is scrum half with 2008 winner Aaron Smith the incumbent and Tawera Kerr-Barlow – of the 2010 vintage like Savea – the understudy with Perenara likely to join them with a Test debut in 2014.

Then throw into the mix the ‘apprentice All Black’ from this November tour, Ardie Savea who was one of the stand-out players at JWC 2013 in France, not just for his never-say-die approach on the field but his humility off it.

That attitude – when he shakes off the ‘apprentice’ tag and joins his brother as an All Black – is seemingly a requisite for an All Blacks side who simply never believe a match is beyond them until the final whistle ... as Ireland found out to their cost on Sunday.