A roll of the dice for the All Blacks' most hotly contested World Cup-position
Since 2015 there has been one position where the All Blacks have failed to replace the talent they lost in the post World Cup exodus.
Many players have been tried at blindside flanker over the last three years but a number of factors have made it difficult for any individual to rise above their fellow competitors and cement the spot for their own.
Liam Squire, the man many thought was the natural successor to Jerome Kaino, has notched up 23 caps since his debut in 2016 – hardly a huge return for three years of test football. Injuries have plagued Squire’s career to the point where his availability come test season has rarely been guaranteed. He has yet to feature for the Highlanders in 2019 and time may be running out for a player who at one point would have been considered the incumbent.
Closely trailing Squire is the trio of Vaea Fifita (9 caps), Shannon Frizzell (4) and Jackson Hemopo (3) – three players who have all shone for the All Blacks against minnows but have yet to really assert themselves against top tier opposition, partially because Squire has somewhat limited their opportunities. Scott Barrett has also done enough in his cameos on the flank to be considered a genuine option to start, but a specialist will almost certainly be preferred.
The All Blacks coaches essentially have two options for the 2019 test season: make the safe selection and continue to persist with one of the above players, accepting that they’re probably not going to have a world-class blindside flanker for the World Cup, or make the riskier selection and try bring a new prospect up to speed with the All Blacks game plan.
Hail Mary plays have never been the current selectors’ modus operandi – but they also haven’t been afraid to make big calls when necessary. New Zealand, in particular, seems to have a history of selecting a new player in a World Cup year whose form has demanded inclusion in the squad, even if they’re fairly new to the scene.
In 2011, Israel Dagg was fast-tracked from being a bit-part backup to Mils Muliaina to being the starting fullback in the World Cup final and 2015 saw the fast-stepping Nehe Milner-Skudder rise from relative obscurity to start on the right wing.
If Steven Hansen and co are looking to head in a different direction from the already tried blindside flankers for the upcoming international season, then one player who could make a huge difference in the All Blacks loose forwards is young Chiefs flanker Luke Jacobson.
Jacobson, an ex-U20 captain for New Zealand, played ten matches for Waikato in 2017’s Mitre 10 Cup. His performances at blindside flanker and number 8 earned him a contract with the Chiefs and a breakout season in 2018 saw him notch up 13 matches.
The then-20 year old’s stature was growing with every match played. His carries were damaging and his tackles left many an opposition player rattled. The signs were all positive that Jacobson was in for a bumper year with Waikato – until concussion struck.
Jacobson’s head was struck by an elbow in the Chiefs’ final regular season match of 2018 against the Hurricanes and left him feeling the side effects of concussion and out of the game for six months – curtailing his first full season as a professional.
When RugbyPass spoke to Jacobson earlier in the year, his goals remained humble: “I’d like to get back into footy for starters,” he said.
“I’d be really keen to try and push for a starting spot. There’s definitely some good competition. If I was able to do that, I’d be pretty happy with that.”
Half a year on the sidelines due to an injury as debilitating and insidious as concussion is enough to bring any player crashing down to earth – the nature of professional sport is fickle, something as innocuous as a rogue elbow to the head could potentially end a career – so it’s no wonder that Jacobson has set very pragmatic goals.
And whilst there’s a certain appeal to Jacobson’s unassuming aspirations for 2019, there will be many who think that Jacobson could go on to achieve so much more this year.
Since returning to the fold for the Chiefs in round five of the competition – against the Hurricanes in Hamilton – Jacobson has seamlessly picked up where he left off last year, putting in some absolutely monstrous hits on defence. It also helps that he’s tackling at over 90%, ensuring that his defence is both reliable and impactful.
Jacobson’s attack has proved equally impressive in his few showings so far this year. His open field running and offloading has helped split holes in opposition defences but it’s his close quarter pick and drives that have really caught the eye and will leave the All Blacks selectors’ mouths watering. Too often in the past World Cup cycle have the All Blacks been found wanting in forward battles with the Northern Hemisphere nations – something exploited by the Lions, England and Ireland.
It’s no coincidence that Jacobson’s return to the Chiefs has aligned with their best form of the season (admittedly not a hard ask given how the first few weeks of the competition went for the men from Hamilton). Four losses to start the season have now been followed by a draw with the Hurricanes and away wins in Pretoria and Buenos Aires – the match with the Hurricanes saw Jacobson return off the bench after his lengthy absence and he has started both subsequent matches.
In 2018, the Chiefs top loose forward trio was comprised of Liam Messam, Sam Cane and Jacobson – all three players were absent this year until Jacobson returned in week 5. Messam now plays for Toulon in France whilst Cane has been absent due to the neck fracture he sustained in last year’s Rugby Championship. With Messam overseas and Cane’s chances of appearing in Super Rugby for 2019 still unknown, Chiefs coach Colin Cooper will just be happy that he can now field one of his favoured trio.
It is, of course, still very early days in this year’s Super Rugby competition. There’s plenty of time for the many candidates vying for the All Blacks number 6 jersey to stake their claim and the players who have already spent time in the national fold will naturally have an advantage over relative newbies like Jacobson.
Although the All Blacks have been the most consistent test rugby team over the last few years, England and Ireland will know that they can best New Zealand if they dominate them in the collision zone. Steve Hansen and his fellow selectors may be comfortable that they have the men and the tactics to overcome the northern union’s more aggressive forward play, but perhaps something new is exactly what the All Blacks need.
Fortune favours the bold, so don’t be surprised if Luke Jacobson is the new name on the squad sheet when the All Blacks team is announced in July.
Aaron Mauger full press conference ahead of the Hurricanes:
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