The loose forward mix has been an area of huge debate for the All Blacks in 2019.
Sam Cane spent the better part of the year recovering from a broken neck, whilst Ardie Savea made plenty of strides with the Hurricanes. Has Savea now done enough to be considered New Zealand’s top openside flanker, or is Cane still considered the incumbent?
Kieran Read also had a delayed start to the year, not making an appearance until round seven. The 33-year-old hasn’t quite played at his peak for a couple of years now and lacks some of the dynamism that someone like Savea could bring to the back at the scrum. Is his place in the starting XV also under pressure, even as the All Blacks captain?
If past experience is anything to go by, Cane and Read will retain their spots at 7 and 8 respectively whilst Savea will continue to provide invaluable impact from the bench. That, however, still leaves the biggest question on the table: who is New Zealand’s best option on the blindside?
Square pegs into round holes
There’s always the option of using a makeshift solution. Perhaps Scott Barrett, who’s more at home in the second row, could make the shift to the blindside? Alternatively, if the All Blacks simply want the best loose forwards they have at their disposal on the park then shifting Read to the flank could also be an option.
Again, if we simply look at the past behaviour of the All Blacks selectors then this seems like an unlikely solution.
Steve Hansen has talked about Barrett covering 6 as recently as earlier this month when the first All Blacks squad of the year was named. A move to the side of the scrum seems more like an option that the team could choose to use late in games, but doesn’t seem like a viable set-up right from the get go. For all his strengths, Barrett probably doesn’t quite have the mobility to play in the loose forwards for 60-odd minutes needed from a starter.
All signs point the All Blacks opting to use an out-and-out flanker at 6 – and there are still plenty of options, even at this late stage of the season.
Fifita’s final chance goes begging
Vaea Fifita was given first shot against Argentina over the weekend.
Fifita burst onto the scene in 2017 with a rampaging display against the Pumas in New Plymouth but he failed to remind everyone of the vast athleticism at his disposal on Sunday morning. The Hurricanes utility has now amassed 10 caps but, apart from that initial start two years ago, he hasn’t really done enough to indicate that he’s ready for the big time. He’s certainly man handled a few bodies when up against the likes of Japan and Italy, but the All Blacks don’t need a blindside flanker for games against relative minnows – they need someone who can stand up against South Africa, England and Ireland.
Fifita could find that he’s one of the unlucky few to be omitted from the squad to take on the Wallabies after he failed to step up in Buenos Aires.
Plenty of unproven options
The next cab off the ranks for Blindside Flanker Idol is Shannon Frizell, who wasn’t able to travel to Argentina due to a minor injury. Frizell is now fit and ready for action and will be odds on to start this weekend’s match against South Africa.
Frizell debuted last year for New Zealand and played in the All Blacks’ rematch against the Springboks in Pretoria. With just four caps to his name, he’s still a very inexperienced option and is probably a little lucky to earn selection in the squad after falling away a little bit in the latter stages of 2019’s Super Rugby competition.
Still, Frizell has the physicality and athleticism to make a major statement on the international stage and will probably have one more chance to prove his worth against the old foe this weekend.
Dalton Papalii is another option for the 6 jersey but has been used exclusively on the openside in his two All Blacks matches to date. Those two tests were also against Japan and Italy, so the young Blues forward has not yet been tested against high level opposition. Papalii is probably squaring off with Matt Todd for a spot in the World Cup squad and may have an advantage due to his versatility, but Todd has ample experience and could well be starting this weekend.
Banking on youth
The fourth and final option for the blindside flank this weekend is the man who made his debut against Argentina, Luke Jacobson.
Jacobson was tipped for the All Blacks earlier in the season but looked likely to miss out on selection due to sitting out the final weeks of the Super Rugby with a concussion. Lo and behold, Jacobson’s name was read out on July 2nd when the national squad was named, which shows just how highly the selectors rate the man from Cambridge. Jacobson has played just 31 professional rugby matches and hadn’t taken the field since early May yet was still included in the All Blacks squad.
After coming off the bench against Argentina, Jacobson didn’t set the world alight – but he also didn’t make any mistakes. His defence was physical and aggressive, and he ended the match with eight tackles to his name – the most of any reserve and two more than Fifita.
At the start of the season, Jacobson would have been a long-shot to even make the All Blacks squad. He may still be a long-shot to make the match-day squad for this weekend’s fixture against the Springboks, given that there are four loose forwards in the team who are yet to play a match, but the All Blacks could do a lot worse than throwing the Waikato loosie into the fray against New Zealand’s biggest rivals.
Shannon Frizell is probably still the favourite to start this week’s game against South Africa, but don’t be surprised if Luke Jacobson’s name is somewhere on the team-sheet come Thursday morning.
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