Few departing rugby players leave as big of a hole in their team as the one created by Kieran Read’s retirement from international rugby last year and could the Highlanders‘ Marino Makaele-Tu’u be the man to fill it for the All Blacks?
Following the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, Read decided to call time on his international career and has since made the move to Japan and joined up with former All Blacks coaches Steve Hansen and Simon Cron. He left with 128 All Blacks caps to his name, placing him behind just Richie McCaw and Keven Mealamu in the all-time list of caps, whilst he also put together over 150 appearances in a 12-year career at the Crusaders.
Read was an integral part of the Rugby World Cup-winning New Zealand sides of 2011 and 2015, contributing not only as an effective ball-carrier, but also as a ruthlessly efficient lineout option and an extraordinarily successful captain. His stranglehold on the No 8 jersey and consistency when wearing it has seen few challengers to usurp his mantle as the stabilising force at the base of the All Black scrum.
Time inevitably passes, though, and New Zealand coach Ian Foster has to find a successor capable of filling those sizeable boots left by the 34-year-old.
Sam Cane has been made captain of the side and slots in as the team’s openside, whilst Ardie Savea is pencilled in for a role, whether that is on the blindside or providing significant impact off of the bench. Savea has been used fleetingly at No 8 in international rugby, most recently against Namibia at the Rugby World Cup, though he has always been preferred as a flank by former head coach Hansen.
Chiefs back rower Luke Jacobson has recently been brought into the All Blacks mix and physically matches up relatively well with the height, weight and mobility that Read brought to the position, though like Savea, he is generally preferred on the flank at club and international levels. The same generally goes for blindside Shannon Frizell, with the Highlander adding an appetising lineout option to whatever back row he is part of.
In terms of the more specialist options at the position available to Foster, Highlanders No 8 Mikaele-Tu’u put on a show in the Super Rugby Aotearoa opener in Dunedin on Saturday. The Hawke’s Bay man was abrasive at the contact area and was frequently able to get over the gain-line as a ball-carrier and get his side moving forward. If Foster hadn’t been looking before, he certainly will be now.
At just 22 years of age, there is plenty of growth left in Mikaele-Tu’u, as well, and if combined with Cane at openside and an adept lineout option on the blindside, wouldn’t detract from the adaptability and all-round strength of the All Black back row over the last decade. He picked up the man of the match award against the Chiefs on Saturday and was fully deserving of the accolade.
His opposite number in that game, Pita Gus Sowakula, was also impressive, and the former Fijian basketball player is a wildcard to take on the role moving forward. If he could be convinced to commit his future to New Zealand rather than Fiji, he would offer a length and comfort with the ball in hand that would be unrivalled amongst New Zealand’s current No 8 options.
At the Hurricanes, one-time capped All Black Gareth Evans is another potential candidate, with the 28-year-old having shown his consistency and impact at the Super Rugby level with both the ‘Canes and Highlanders, for a number of years now. Foster will know that Evans could do a job for him in international rugby, although if the goal is to find a long-term replacement for Read, his search to find competition for Mikaele-Tu’u and Sowakula should take him to the rebuilding Blues.
Akira Ioane is arguably the most heralded of the options available to Foster, with the Tokyo-born loose forward having previously dominated in age-grade rugby and he was swiftly moved up into senior contention at the Auckland-based franchise. He was able to flash his ability early with the Blues, though he did struggle to consistently string together effective performances earlier in his 20’s.
Now, with four full Super Rugby seasons under his belt, Ioane is a far more effective performer week after week, he has an All Blacks cap to his name and he matches up physically with Read as closely as any of the players mentioned here. He does not boast Read’s same mastery of the lineout yet, though he offers plenty as a ball-carrier both close to the ruck and in the wide channels. He has become a much more rounded player over the last 18 months.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 13, 2020
Ioane has a significant rival in Auckland, let alone the All Blacks, however, with the 21-year-old Hoskins Sotutu enjoying a breakout campaign at the Super Rugby level. The versatile back row has looked comfortable at No 8 at the pinnacle of domestic rugby in the country and throws his name into the mix for Foster to consider, should he, like Sowakula, be willing to cut ties with Fiji in order to represent New Zealand.
New Fiji head coach Vern Cotter will be doing his best to persuade both Sowakula and Sotutu to get onboard with his vision for Fijian rugby, but with limited opportunities domestically in New Zealand should they commit to Fiji, it will be a tough sell for Cotter. The lure of the black jersey is strong in terms of tradition and earning potential in New Zealand.
Given the domineering hold that Read has had on the jersey over the past decade, Foster has to be relatively happy with the options that are available to him moving forward, even if there is a complete lack of international experience on offer outside of switching Savea to a role at the base of the scrum.
A last-minute drop goal from Bryn Gatland has secured a dramatic win for the Highlanders against the much fancied Chiefs in Dunedin.https://t.co/EKX8tqhkTt
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 13, 2020
Evans and Ioane offer Super Rugby experience and have both donned the silver fern already, Mikaele-Tu’u and Sotutu are younger but offer salivating potential and longevity at the position, whilst Sowakula is the wildcard, bringing the basketball and Fijian flair in equal measure.
Mikaele-Tu’u has taken an early lead in the race thanks game-winning performance he put in at Forsyth Barr Stadium and though not as highly-touted coming through as some of his rivals, the former New Zealand U20 is showing sizeable strides in his post-age-grade development.
Thankfully for Foster, he has nine more weeks of watching these talented players go head-to-head with one another as they duke it out to be the first to be given the opportunity to fill the void left by Read.
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