No one was more shocked than Ben Smith when he received a call up to the All Blacks for the 2009 end of season tour to Japan and Europe. After a solid Super Rugby season on the wing for the Highlanders, Ben Smith impressed at fullback for Otago in the domestic competition before joining Zac Guilford, Tamati Ellison and Mike Delany as debutants in the squad. At the time, Smith said he had no idea that he would be selected for the team: "I thought I was going all right but I never thought I was going to get a callup for the All Blacks."
The surprise selection in the All Blacks 1990 France touring squad was 19-year-old Wellington pivot Simon Mannix. The youngster was just a year out St Pats Silverstream when selected as an understudy to Grant Fox on the 1990 tour. After eight All Blacks matches spread across tours to France and Argentina in 1990 and 1991, Mannix made his All Blacks Test debut at 22-years-old against France in 1994 – a game also marked by the debut of Jonah Lomu. The rise of Andrew Mehrtens at first-five meant that Mannix didn’t receive another opportunity in black before enjoying a successful career in English domestic rugby.
After playing as a centre and fullback as a teenager, Jerome Kaino switched to the loose forwards and made a huge impact. In 2004, Kaino burst onto the scene with impressive Super Rugby and provincial debuts before starring for New Zealand at the Under 21 World Championship. His rapid elevation was complete with an All Blacks debut against the Barbarians at Twickenham at just 21-years-old. It took Kaino another two years before making his Test debut and going onto become one of the finest loose forwards of the modern era.
At 19 years and 45 days old, Jonah Lomu was just a year out of high school when he became the youngest ever All Black in 1994. Although Lomu had starred at the 1994 Hong Kong Sevens, no one predicted his quick elevation into Laurie Mains’ All Blacks squad – particularly given he had only just made the switch from No. 8 to wing. His first Test was a heavy loss to France in Christchurch. The following year, Lomu announced himself as a global superstar during the 1995 Rugby World Cup and went on to score 37 tries across 63 Test matches.
After just one full season with the Auckland A side, Bryan Williams vaulted into the All Blacks 1970 South Africa tour squad at the age of just 19. A prolific try-scorer for Ponsonby at club level in Auckland, Williams quickly showed he could replicate that at International level with an astonishing 14 tries in 13 appearances on the tour. Williams went onto become one of the greatest All Blacks outside backs in history and laid the platform for Polynesian players to flourish on the global stage.
Perhaps the person most surprised by Israel Dagg’s selection in the All Blacks 2010 squad was Dagg himself. Despite two outstanding years at fullback for the Highlanders, Dagg recently told AllBlacks.com that he didn’t expect his name to be read out when he watched the announcement live on the Rugby Channel. Dagg made his All Blacks debut on 12 June 2010 against Ireland in New Plymouth at fullback, with Cory Jane and Joe Rokocoko on the wing. Dagg shared his debutant honors alongside second five-eighth Benson Stanley and prop Ben Franks. Dagg made significant contributions and was rampant on the counter-attack, with the All Blacks coming away with a convincing 66-28 win.
Blockbusting Wellington Lions hooker Asafo Aumua hadn’t even played Super Rugby when he received a call-up to the All Blacks for the 2017 Northern tour. Aged just 20 at the time, Aumua had a stunning 2017 season for both the New Zealand Under 20s and Wellington in the domestic competition to put himself firmly on the selection radar. After making a name for himself with a hat-trick in the U20 World Championships final, Aumua continued his fine form with seven tries for the Wellington Lions to press his case for selection. Aumua made his All Blacks debut against the Barbarians at Twickenham in 2017 aged just 20 years and 184 days old.
Virtually unknown at the start of the 2018 season, loose forward Dalton Papalii received a call-up to the All Blacks following impressive performances for the Blues in Super Rugby and Auckland in the domestic competition. Although standing out mainly as a blindside flanker, Papalii was rewarded for his ability to cover either side of the scrum said All Blacks selector Grant Fox. "He was an under-20 star as more of a six (blindside) not so long ago – I can't recall having a guy who can play six and seven." Papalii made his debut at openside flanker in the 69-31 victory over Japan in Tokyo that year.
The bolter of the All Blacks 2015 Rugby World Cup squad, hot-stepping wing Nehe Milner-Skudder scored eight tries in his debut season for the All Blacks, including one in the world cup final. Milner-Skudder first caught the attention of selectors for Manawatu in the 2014 domestic competition before starring for the Hurricanes in his first season of Super Rugby in 2015. An electrifying ball-runner and deadly finisher, there are not many players who have had a more impressive debut season for the All Blacks than Milner-Skudder.
The feel-good story of 2018, prop Karl Tu’inukuafe started the year as an uncontracted player and ended up as a World Rugby breakthrough player of the year nominee. Called into the Chiefs Super Rugby squad early in the season, Tu’inukuafe impressed with his rock-solid scrummaging, powerful defence and strong ball carrying. He made his debut for the All Blacks in the Steinlager Series against France and went on to make six starts from 13 appearances that season.