Blindsided: Is No. 6 the All Blacks' biggest World Cup question mark?
All Black loose forward Liam Squire’s 2018 campaign didn’t end how he or head coach Steve Hansen might have hoped.
The grip Squire holds on the All Blacks’ number six jersey may be slipping on the back of two almost-absent outings that saw the flanker play a role far-removed from the one that earned him national selection in the first place.
Traditionally the All Black blindside role has been filled by a bruising enforcer. The likes of Jerome Kaino and the late Jerry Collins held the position for extended periods of time, and made a lasting impact on the game with thunderous carries and bone-rattling hits.
After Kaino’s departure Squire inherited the starting role, but has failed to make the same impact despite his physical similarities and Super Rugby form. Squire, described by Hansen as a ‘physical beast’ fits the bill on paper, matching Kaino for height at 1.96m and carrying more bulk than both Kaino and Collins at 113kg.
Before a knee injury against Ireland last weekend cut Squire’s November tour short – another setback after thumb and shoulder injuries have kept him off the park in 2018 – the loose forward had failed to make his mark on the tour with his physical gifts wasting away in passenger-like performances.
Mostly playing in a support role, Squire often found himself around the action but rarely in it. The role he has played within Steve Hansen’s attack has neutralised his ability to affect the game.
In the All Blacks’ most recent outings Squire has operated mainly as a tip ball option within a pod, limiting his opportunities with ball in hand. When given the opportunity – usually in the middle of the park – he hasn’t been able to find breathing room and has either been forced to straighten – often failing to look outside as well – or sent backwards. Where he has thrived in the past – and made his name – is as an edge runner in space, a role now commonly filled by the All Black hooker.
Against Ireland Squire notched five carries for two metres and made three tackles before being replaced by Scott Barrett after 31 minutes. Against England a week earlier he failed to chalk up a running metre from three carries and made five tackles in a 51 minute shift – not the kind of numbers you would expect from an All Black loose forward.
This stagnant production could come down to a number of things, including Squire simply performing his role. It could also mean that he just isn’t the answer on the side of the scrum.
With other athletic loose forwards like Shannon Frizell and Vaea Fifita in the frame and Scott Barrett making an impact in the blindside role with more frequency, further experimentation will be required as the All Blacks try to lock down their man for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Blindside flanker is arguably the most open position in the team, and Squire’s durability – he has started 40 of a possible 95 matches for both the Highlanders and All Blacks in the last three seasons – has opened the door for Highlanders teammate Frizell who shone in the number six jersey in their respective starts earlier this year.
24-year-old Frizell was a star in two of his test starts – both against Argentina – racking up 37 tackles with just three misses in 147 minutes of action. Aside from his first test start where he notched 63 run metres, made three clean breaks, beat five defenders and scored a try he has been limited offensively, but still gotten through plenty of work on the defensive end. The limited attacking production could signal that the role within the system has simply changed.
Perhaps a quality run against Italy would have helped Squire regain some form and give selectors some more confidence, but injury meant 26-year-old Fifita earned a start at blindside in the All Blacks’ final test of the year. Fifita made a strong impression of his own in a 66-3 thrashing in Rome. The Hurricanes back rower carried four times for 50 metres, converted half of his carries into line breaks and beat three defenders. On the defensive end, he topped the All Blacks in tackles with 12 and didn’t miss once. He was edged only by Italian openside Jake Polledri, who made 15 but missed four.
While the games against Argentina and Italy didn’t match the intensity or competitiveness of Squire’s starts against Ireland and England, Fifita and Frizell’s game-breaking efforts can’t be ignored. Fifita still saw a limited amount of ball against Italy and Frizell didn’t get many touches in his second crack at Argentina – which supports the theory that a change in role is what has limited Squire’s involvement on the offensive side of the ball – but both displayed a dangerous ability with both ball in hand and made sure they impacted the game on the other side of the ball.
While he offers a point of difference as an elite jumper with the ability to cover number eight – Frizell and Fifita are better suited as blindsides that can cover lock – Squire simply hasn’t looked hasn’t looked anything like the dynamic ball-carrier we have seen in the past, or the tenacious defender we have grown accustomed to in 2018. Those points of difference may not be enough to secure his place if he can’t get more involved in 2019.
While the jersey will likely remain Squire’s to lose entering next year, a strong Super Rugby season from Frizell or Fifita could push the 27-year-old out of the World Cup frame unless he opens some eyes and can stay on the field for the Highlanders next year.
With only a few chances remaining for Squire, Frizell and Fifita to prove themselves in the black jersey before the World Cup, whoever puts their hand up in 2019 can force their way in, while those that don’t perform may be left on the outer.
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