Papalii-Cane conundrum tops list of All Blacks' questions after tumultuous 2022

Twickenham was supposed to provide definitive proof the All Blacks have the makings of a Rugby World Cup winning team. On that grand stage the final Test of their tumultuous year instead served to underline many of the same nagging doubts evident throughout 2022.

The All Blacks arrived in London riding a six-Test winning run, and with an air of confidence knowing after several weeks of rotation they would reinstate their first-choice team, with a view to delivering a statement performance on the eve of the World Cup.

And for 70-odd minutes, that's exactly what they did. A forward pack that was mauled at this same stage last year, when the All Blacks suffered successive losses to Ireland and France, banished their 2019 World Cup semifinal demons by physically dominating England.

The All Blacks scrum held the upper-hand; their maul shunted England around, and their pick-and-drive made consistent metres through the middle.

With that platform the plan to negate England's rush defence through a series of cross-field kicks paid dividends -- Rieko Ioane's 80-metre try highlighting this tactic's success.

Yet for all those progressions, the All Blacks folded when it mattered most. Leading 17-3 at half time and 25-6 with nine minutes remaining they spectacularly crumbled to concede three tries following a yellow card to Beauden Barrett.

England were clearly content to take a draw. For the All Blacks, this might as well have been defeat.

Four years since their last venture to Twickenham and they let victory slip to display a deeply concerning lack of ruthlessness while pointing to the inherent inconsistency that has dogged their wildly fluctuating year.

Twickenham is far from the only occasion this season Ian Foster's men collapsed. Five other Tests this year they blew 14-point leads.

There is no doubt the All Blacks have improved since the depths of their historic lows; the maiden home series loss to Ireland in July and the first home defeat to Michael Cheika's Pumas. Yet the inconsistency remains. And with a World Cup on the horizon, a tournament that requires the champion to win three knife-edge knockout matches, the All Blacks seem incapable of achieving that right now.

Sure, the All Blacks could feasibly get up for a one-off quarterfinal against the Springboks. But on the evidence of this year, only with blind loyalty could anyone say they could repeat that twice more.

Twickenham, for the most part, anyway, was on par with the All Blacks' best performance of the year - their under-siege Ellis Park victory that saved Foster's tenure.

It trumped their swift response against the Pumas in Hamilton and their familiar Bledisloe humbling of the Wallabies at Eden Park.

The cold, harsh reality, though, is the All Blacks undid all their impressive work against England in nine meek minutes.

Such frailties play into the narrative that the All Blacks aren't the team they once were. Such a monumental collapse tells all top tier opposition that no matter the scoreboard, they are never out of the contest against these All Blacks.

In his final press conference of the year Foster steadfastly stuck to his script but he appears too dismissive of the inconsistencies evident in the 50-minute scoreless period against Scotland, the tense finish against Japan following Brodie Retallick's red card and the failure to back up those other statement efforts.

"Going into the next few months it's clear we've got some areas to improve but we can go into next year with a bit of confidence," Foster said.

"I'm probably a little bit more glass half full. We've gone through this tour unbeaten in many senses. We've got to learn that composure, there's no doubt about that.

"We've got to learn the art of shutting down close games. And it's not like we can't do it - we've already done it this year. It just shows you've got to do it every time and that's not the easiest thing to do.

"We finished the tour in a pretty strong place but there's enough there to niggle away at us and we know we've got to move a bit for the World Cup."

The All Blacks finish their emotionally charged year with eight wins, four losses, one draw.

For the All Blacks, that's a decidedly underwhelming record. Improvements only came when Foster was forced to axe assistant coaches John Plumtree and Brad Mooar, with Jason Ryan and Joe Schmidt injecting major changes in their forwards and attacking areas.

"Four of the losses were in the first six games. We've made some big strides since then. We beat every team that beat us so we've shown we can play at a high level and we've shown some growth.

"I try not to get caught up in the adjectives. There's been periods of the year that were tough and we weren't as good as we wanted to be. We've owned that.

"We don't stick in the past. Our goal is to look forward.

"We have progressed. We've won most things we need to win. Our top performance has been very good but there's been a few little glitches along the line we've got to tidy up."

While the All Blacks first-choice team is taking shape, thanks to Jordie Barrett's belated move to the midfield, other testing decisions loom and there will be concerns about the drop in quality from incumbents to deputies at halfback and loosehead prop in particular.

Super Rugby Pacific is sure to throw up a few more selection curve balls in the way of injuries and form contenders but the vast majority of the northern tour group will form next year's World Cup squad.

With four Tests before the All Blacks depart for their final World Cup warm-up match against the Springboks at Twickenham, Foster must source inspiration over the coming summer months to suppress his side's inconsistencies and extract more than he has to this pivotal juncture.

Three selection questions for 2023:

Dalton Papalii or Sam Cane?

This decision looms over Ian Foster's Christmas like the ideal ham glaze. Papalii was a revelation on the All Blacks northern tour - just as he was at that same stage last year. His physical, combative defence, speed across the ground and anticipation - as we saw for the opening intercept try at Twickenham - gave the All Blacks loose forwards their best balance. On form, the decision is a no-brainer. During the pits of the All Blacks struggles this year Sam Cane carried a heavy burden with the captaincy. Just as he began to find form, his best Test coming in the demolition of the Pumas, he suffered a broken cheekbone that ruled him out for the year and opened the door for Papalii to seize his chance.

The Blues skipper can do no more to state his case. Foster is deeply loyal, though, which will make this decision incredibly fraught. Foster stayed true to Cane's captaincy when many called for him to be replaced earlier this year and while Sam Whitelock is a natural leader, he was not Foster's first choice. Super Rugby form could be telling but if his track record is anything to go by, Foster is likely to defy public opinion and reinstate Cane.

Where does Scott Barrett play?

Barrett was among the best performing All Blacks forwards this year - his crucial try-saving on Scotland fullback Stuart Hogg a classic example of his oft-unseen efforts. Whether it's lock or No. 6, Barrett has to feature from the outset which probably places Brodie Retallick's starting role under threat.

What to do with the All Blacks hooking rotation?

The All Blacks finished with Codie Taylor as their starting hooker to cap a redemption tour after his throwing struggles heavily contributed to the maiden home defeat to the Pumas. Which way round the All Blacks use their hookers next year will be fascinating. While Taylor's set-piece proficiency is highly valued, there's a strong argument for utilising Samisoni Taukei'aho's destructive ball carrying as long as possible.