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Could Luke Jacobson start ahead of Hoskins Sotutu in Bledisloe I?

By Tom Vinicombe
Hoskins Sotutu and Luke Jacobson. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Having finally settled on a loose forward trio for the first time since taking over as head coach of the All Blacks in 2020, Ian Foster now finds himself without two of the three components as the team gears up for two Bledisloe Cup clashes with Australia.

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Gone are Shannon Frizell and Ardie Savea, with the former injured and the latter on parental leave, with Luke Jacobson joining the squad to compliment the likes of Sam Cane, Akira Ioane, Dalton Papali’i and Hoskins Sotutu.

While Ioane and Papali’i were both given runs on the blindside flank earlier in the season, Frizell has been preferred in the No 6 jersey in the last three matches and has finally started to deliver performances worthy of an international loose forward.

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With Frizell and Savea out of the picture at least for next weekend’s clash in Melbourne, Foster now has to decide how to get the right balance as the All Blacks look to build on their 50-point thrashing of Argentina in Hamilton.

NZ scored three relatively comfortable victories over their Australian rivals last year, winning by an average margin of 20 points.

In all three of those fixtures, Foster rolled out the same starting trio in the loose forwards: Akira Ioane, Dalton Papali’i and Ardie Savea.

Two of those three players are available for next Saturday’s match-up but with Sam Cane back on deck this year, Foster will likely opt to keep his captain in the No 7 jersey, despite shouldering a heavy workload throughout the season to date.

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With Frizell out of action, there’s a strong chance that Ioane comes straight into the starting XV in his place – although Papali’i, Jacobson and lock Scott Barrett are all options.

Although the selectors have expressed an interest in fielding Barrett at No 6, they’ve shown a preference for running a mobile backrow against the Wallabies, which likely rules him out of the equation for the two Bledisloe Tests, even with Brodie Retallick back to full fitness.

As the only dedicated blindsider in the squad, Ioane is likely the man who will be tasked with partnering captain Cane on the flanks.

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Things aren’t quite so clear cut at number 8.

With Jacobson only joining the squad ahead of the Bledisloes for the first time this year, Hoskins Sotutu should be the front-runner to accompany Ioane and Cane, but the fact that Sotutu hasn’t been given any opportunities in the black jersey this year perhaps doesn’t bode quite so well for the 24-year-old.

Sotutu earned himself four starts in the No 8 jersey last year but those opportunities came against Fiji, Argentina, USA and Italy – four sides that the All Blacks were expected to beat and beat comfortably. A handful of minutes off the bench in the first Test against the Springboks, after Jacobson was scratched late in the piece, is the only experience that Sotutu has chalked up against ‘competitive’ opposition.

Jacobson, on the other hand, started six Tests (including one against South Africa) and was employed off the bench in four additional matches.

While Jacobson may not have been the first-choice player in any loose forward role, he was trusted to run out against the Springboks, whereas the same cannot be said for Sotutu.

In the almost 12 months since, it’s difficult to argue that a lot has changed; Sotutu hasn’t played any minutes at all throughout the 2022 Test season, and likely won’t have any opportunities to play against bigger, more physical opposition unless he earns himself a surprise start against England on the end-of-year tour.

Against Ireland, Pita Gus Sowakula was preferred off the bench in the first two matches – and was subsequently (and somewhat absurdly) cut from the squad when John Plumtree lost his position as forwards coach, while the likes of Papali’i and Ioane have been preferred as loose forward cover in the games since.

Sotutu might be able to turn his game on against Australia or other looser opposition but if Foster isn’t willing to play him against more defensively sturdy sides, such as Ireland and South Africa, then perhaps it’s also not worth running him against the likes of the Wallabies?

That being said, it would be a massive insult to Sotutu if Jacobson were to earn a start ahead of him against Australia, given that he’s spent all season biding his time and waiting for an opportunity.

When Jacobson was omitted from the first All Blacks squad of the season, John Plumtree – the All Blacks forwards coach at the time – implied that focussing on one position would aid his cause, instead of playing across the back row for the Chiefs, and that’s exactly what Jacobson’s done for Waikato, playing exclusively at the back of the scrum.

Given Jacobson’s performances in black last year and his ability to cover all three loose forward roles at a pinch, he may be considered the better option for next year’s Rugby World Cup when compared with Sotutu – but it would be a massive call from the sectors to start him ahead of a man who’s been training with the team all year.

The smart money would be on Akira Ioane, Sam Cane and Hoskins Sotutu running out together in Melbourne with Dalton Papali’i proving back-up off the bench but Luke Jacobson’s return to the fold certainly adds a little bit of spice to next week’s selection.

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