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Richie Mo’unga of New Zealand looks to break past Tom Curry of England at Twickenham.
Tony Smith is a Stuff sports reporter.
ANALYSIS: Richie Mo’unga’s move to Japan in the prime of his career must be ringing alarm bells in New Zealand rugby.
The 44-cap pivot – who has spearheaded the Crusaders to six successive Super Rugby titles – will depart in 2024 for a three-year contract at ex-Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder’s Toshiba Brave Lupus club.
Unless New Zealand Rugby have a brain fade and relax their ban on selecting players from overseas clubs, Mo’unga will likely play his last test at the 2023 World Cup.
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He’ll still only be 33 when the 2027 World Cup rolls around, but would he be at All Blacks level after three seasons in Japan’s League One? That’s debatable, despite Japanese competition spruikers claiming the standard is soaring as rapidly as the rising sun.
Mo’unga, by his own admission, has only yet achieved 60 to 70% of his potential in an All Blacks jersey.
He only began to regularly nail the starting No 10 jersey in 2022 – five years after his debut – but no-one could begrudge him a deal that could reportedly reap up to $2 million a year.
ALL BLACKS / YOUTUBE
The All Blacks No 10 recalls the Scots playmaker’s feats in Christchurch club rugby.
For all his Super Rugby success, Mo’unga hasn’t yet consistently scaled the test heights ascended by his Crusaders predecessors Daniel Carter and Andrew Mehrtens, but he will still be a major loss.
To be fair, in his early All Blacks years, he was shackled by the coaches’ dual-point guard plan, aimed at getting Mo’unga (No 10) and two-time World Rugby player of the year Beauden Barrett (fullback) in the same starting backline.
Mo’unga – and Barrett – still remain in the top drawer of international flyhalves, with Ireland’s ageless skipper Johnny Sexton, Scotland’s enigmatic Finn Russell, France’s Romain Ntamack and England’s fast-rising Marcus Smith.
His exit at 29 – a year younger than Frank Bunce at the time of the great 1990s centre’s All Blacks debut – will therefore be a crippling blow because New Zealand rugby is not flush with rising stars in the inside backs space.
Barrett – who has 112 test caps (the same as Carter) – is now preferred at fullback by coach Ian Foster after 56 starts at No 10. Besides, he’ll be 32 by the World Cup’s end, and will himself be in overseas club crosshairs.
Damian McKenzie – 28 in April – is still in the All Blacks mix, but he’s only started two of his 40 tests in a No 10 jumper, although he was capable there for the Chiefs on his own return from a sabbatical in Japan.
But will McKenzie still be around after the World Cup? He could also be tempted by another juicy Japanese offer if he’s not required for France 2023, or given much game time there.
Blues playmaker Stephen Perofeta impressed in Super Rugby in 2022, but made just three test appearances – including a solitary start against Japan – with most of his game-time at fullback.
A finalist in 2022 for Super Rugby Pacific player of the year, Perofeta – 26 in March – will get his chance in the 2023 domestic season to further press his claim as Mo’unga’s All Black heir apparent.
The Crusaders were clearly preparing for Mo’unga’s exit – (he’d made no secret of his desire to experience a rugby lifestyle offshore). That’s why they signed Taha Kemara, 19, for 2023 after five games for Waikato. The Te Awamutu product will get the benefit of Mo’unga’s experience for a year before competing for game time in 2024 with Fergus Burke.
Elsewhere, Bay of Plenty’s Lucas Cashmore was a standout at No 10 for the New Zealand under-20 Baby Blacks and will understudy McKenzie at the Chiefs.
Kemara and Cashmore have potential for the longer term, but Perofeta appeals as the more immediate solution. He should now become a ‘project’ for All Blacks coaches Foster and Joe Schmidt as they look to turn the Blues’ raw talent into a test 10.
Maybe there shouldn’t be any sense of panic – there’s always been succession planning in the past.
By the time 1987 World Cup winner Grant Fox bowed out in 1993, it was obvious Mehrtens would be running the cutter at the 1995 World Cup while Carter was already the preferred starter when Mehrtens played his last test in 2004.
Carter went on to become the greatest No 10 to play the game, retiring a World Cup winner in 2015. But Barrett took over the master’s mantle to become world player of the year in 2016 and 2017.
But, if the 10s cupboard does remain bare, NZR might be tempted to offer Mo’unga an overseas exemption – an option dangled at Barrett this year.