With the Rugby World Cup 2023 Draw only a matter of days away, the next tournament in France will soon become front and centre of everyone’s minds.
The All Blacks’ new man in charge, Ian Foster, awarded new caps to eight players: Caleb Clarke, Hoskins Sotutu, Tupou Vaa'i, Alex Hodgman and Peter Umaga-Jensen in the Bledisloe Cup and Asafo Aumua, Cullen Grace, Akira Ioane and Will Jordan during the Tri-Nations.
New Australia head coach Dave Rennie was slightly more experimental in his selection, with the number of debutants stretching into double figures.
Filipo Daugunu, Hunter Paisami and Harry Wilson got their first chance in the Bledisloe Cup before Lachlan Swinton, Tom Wright, Noah Lolesio, Fraser McReight, Tate McDermott, Irae Simone and finally Angus Bell, who is Wallaby number 940, joined them as capped internationals.
Having not played for over a year, and with Los Jaguares no longer involved in Super Rugby, it was inevitable that Los Pumas head coach Mario Ledesma would look to bring in some new blood.
The former test hooker handed international debuts to Santiago Chocobares, Santiago Grondona, Lucas Paulos, Francisco Gorrissen and Domingo Miotti over the course of Argentina’s four-match schedule.
So which players made the most of their opportunities and are likely to have long and illustrious test careers?
CALEB CLARKE (New Zealand, five caps, one try)
An amazing physical specimen for a winger who has inevitably drawn comparisons with the late, great Jonah Lomu through his performances with the Blues, New Zealand U20s and now the All Blacks. Calm and relaxed off the pitch, he is anything but on it, with his power and aggression making him a hard man to bring down.
Clarke came off the bench to make his test debut in the Bledisloe Cup opener against Australia, which ended in a draw, before starting four of the next five games. Clarke scored his maiden test try right at the end of the 25-15 defeat to Los Pumas. Will Jordan, the dashing full-back, also deserves an honourable mention.
ASAFO AUMUA (New Zealand, one cap)
Aumua has taken a while to fulfil the potential he showed across two World Rugby U20 Championships, capped by a hat-trick of tries in the 2017 final against England. But the mobile, destructive ball-carrying hooker is starting to make good on that early promise and is threatening to become the ‘next Dane Coles’.
Aumua credits the birth of his son for the change in mindset that has seen him finally win his first cap against Australia in November – albeit just a 10-minute cameo off the bench – three years after he toured Europe with the All Blacks without appearing in any of the tests.
FINAL TRI NATIONS STANDINGS 🏆 🇳🇿 🇦🇷 🇦🇺— Super Rugby/Tri Nations (@SuperRugby) December 6, 2020
In a season full of challenges we ended with another draw in the last Tri Nations Match #AUSvARG that means the @AllBlacks were crowned champions with two wins from four... and we now look forward to 2021... pic.twitter.com/ZcUM1xKunv
AKIRA IOANE (New Zealand, two caps)
Like Aumua, Ioane appeared for the All Blacks in a non-capped match against a France XV in 2017 and has had to bide his time since. However, he showed all the hallmarks of being a great test number six in the two matches he played in during the Tri-Nations. Ioane appears to have the lot: phenomenal work-rate, ferocious defence, breakdown skills and destructive ball-carrying.
HUNTER PAISAMI (Australia, six caps)
A wonderfully elusive runner who seems to glide through gaps and power through tackles at will. Paisami is both fearless in attack and defence and his partnership with Jordan Petaia should be the bedrock of the Wallabies’ midfield for years to come.
The 22-year-old started five matches and came off the bench in the 43-5 defeat to the All Blacks in Sydney. It has been quite some year for the outside centre, who only made his Super Rugby debut back in January, and there should be plenty more to come.
HARRY WILSON (Australia, six caps)
Forget debutants, Wilson was one of the Wallabies’ standout performers in 2020, full stop.
The number eight came into the Bledisloe Cup with a glowing reputation from his performances with the Queensland Reds and duly delivered on the international arena. Wilson started all six of the Wallabies’ tests and was consistently one of Australia’s most prominent ball carriers and defenders. Has only just turned 21, frightening really.
SANTIAGO CHOCOBARES (Argentina, three caps)
Chocobares was thrown in at the deep end against the All Blacks in Los Pumas’ first game for over a year and came up trumps in the historic win in Parramatta with a performance that belied his experience.
Strong in possession and in defence, Chocobares showed a level of maturity beyond his 21 years and outplayed his opposite number, the more seasoned Jack Goodhue. Talk about a dream debut! Speaking after the 25-15 victory, the outside centre called it “the happiest day of his life”.