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Can Frizell replace Kaino, Squire?

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Changing of the guard: Have the All Blacks found their new star blindside flanker?

The Highlanders will head into battle against the Hurricanes tonight without the services of Super Rugby’s in-form flanker Shannon Frizell.

Without him, their chances of walking away from Wellington with a win will be heavily dented.

It may seem harsh to say given the quality of Frizell’s replacement in three-test All Black Jackson Hemopo, and that the Highlanders are welcoming back Aaron and Ben Smith from their mandatory All Blacks rest week.

However, despite it being a clever move from head coach Aaron Mauger to implement the first of his two compulsory rest weeks now ahead of a six-match run of New Zealand derbies, the influence of their Tongan-born star cannot be understated.

It doesn’t take a genius to observe the significant contribution Frizell has made in the Highlanders’ opening three matches of 2019.

Coming off the bench against the Chiefs in their season-opener in Hamilton, the four-test blindside – alongside fellow reserve Aaron Smith – helped swing the momentum of the contest by producing a well-taken try from 21 minutes of quality rugby to hand the Highlanders a 30-27 come-from-behind victory.

He was rewarded with the starting role a week later in Dunedin, where he really turned heads against the Reds with a commanding performance which saw him bag a brace of tries, beat five defenders to make two line breaks, and run for 57 metres.

Add to that the 11 tackles he completed from 11 attempts and the two turnovers he secured, and onlookers at Forsyth Barr Stadium had witnessed the most complete performance by any forward so far in Super Rugby this year.

He backed that up with another sensational outing against the Rebels, where he almost single-handedly carried the Highlanders’ forward pack to a narrow loss in Melbourne.

Had he managed to cling onto the ball over the tryline from a pick-and-go in the dying stages of the match, he would have added to the wonderful try he scored early in the first half.

Nevertheless, Frizell finished with a tidy stat sheet, completing the game with 33 running metres, five defenders beaten from one clean break, and 10 tackles made from 11 attempts.

In the two matches he’s started, no forward has ousted him for ball carries, metres made, defenders beaten or clean breaks, and he now leads the competition for tries scored (four), is second for ball carries (38), and is the only forward to register in the top 10 for defenders beaten (11).

Frizell’s defensive presence shouldn’t go unnoticed either, as he’s missed just two of his 25 tackle attempts to register a success rate of 92 percent.

What’s been perhaps been most impressive, though, is his ability to manoeuvre through the tackle attempts of his opponents and drive forward to earn his side an extra few hard-earned metres.

Being able to stay on his feet and thrust his way forward made him a key attacking weapon for the Highlanders against the Chiefs, Reds and Rebels, and Hemopo will have a big job on his hands to fill that role against the Hurricanes tonight.

It’s that effectiveness and work rate across all facets of the game that has made Frizell not only a standout for the Highlanders, but it’s thrust him into the spotlight to fill the All Blacks’ number six jersey at this year’s World Cup.

The All Blacks’ incumbent number six Liam Squire has been out with a hip injury since the end of last year, and is set to have a tough time wrestling the starting blindside role off his international and Super Rugby teammate Frizell.

Since debuting for the Highlanders and All Blacks in 2016, Squire has been a monster to contain for opposition defences, such his physicality both with and without the ball.

Those qualities have earned him 23 test caps to date, and following the departure of Jerome Kaino to Toulouse last year, Squire seems to have established himself as New Zealand’s premier six.

That is if he’s fit enough to play.

The 27-year-old has built himself a reputation for being injury-plagued in recent times, and it’s a reputation that’s ruled him out of a raft of test matches, most notably the 2017 British and Irish Lions series.

Injuries can be expected given the nature of which Squire plays the game – he’s brutal, unrelenting, and is extremely confrontational – but for all the benefits that style of play brings, it could cost him his All Blacks jersey, especially when a challenger like Frizell is in the form that he’s in.

In all fairness, there’s still another 14 rounds of Super Rugby to be played, and in that timeframe, Squire could return to peak form and re-assert himself as Aaron Mauger’s and Steve Hansen’s top-class six by the business end of Super Rugby.

That’s also ample amounts of time for someone such as Hemopo, Vaea Fifita, Jordan Taufua or Dalton Papalii to bolster their claims for the starting six jersey in Japan later this year.

However, with Squire’s unreliability to stay out of the medical ward, and Frizell’s outstanding start to the year that’s overshadowed the efforts of his competitors nationwide, a change of guard at blindside flanker appears imminent at the Highlanders and All Blacks.

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Changing of the guard: Have the All Blacks found their new star blindside flanker?