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De facto All Blacks trial poses as many questions as answers for selectors

By Tom Vinicombe
David Havili and Quinn Tupaea. (Photos by Getty Images)

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Are the Crusaders a champion team, or a team of champions? That’s the question the All Blacks selectors will be pondering after the Cantabrians’ semi-final victory over the Chiefs in Christchurch, with the home side making close to 250 tackles in a monumental defensive effort to secure a 20-7 victory.

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With so many potential All Blacks on display in the fixture – including 19 who have featured in Ian Foster’s squads over the past two seasons – the game shaped as somewhat of a final trial match before the first squad of the year is named on Monday.

Focussing simply on the collective effort, the Crusaders players will have certainly done themselves a world of good ahead of the squad announcement. The forwards – boasting the likes of George Bower, Codie Taylor, Scott Barrett and Cullen Grace – churned through countless back-to-back defensive efforts, with five players hitting the 20-tackle mark and Tom Christie managing a whopping 30 on his own. Whatever the Chiefs pack threw at their opposites, the Crusaders had an answer.

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Picking an All Blacks squad to take on Ireland.
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Picking an All Blacks squad to take on Ireland.

In the backline, Richie Mo’unga, David Havili and Will Jordan stood out thanks to their excellent decision-making. While the Chiefs opted to run the ball from inside their own half with the wind behind them – even after learning they were unlikely to penetrate the Crusaders defence – their opposition were happy to trade possession for territory, and it’s a tactic that paid dividends.

But, the Crusaders are a side that have been forged in steel over a number of years since Scott Robertson took over as head coach 100 matches ago, back in 2017. With a few exceptions throughout the side, the vast majority of the players wearing red and black on Friday night are well ingrained in the Church of Robertson and have a learned understanding of where to be, what to do, and where to do it.

The situation is a little different in Chiefs land.

Clayton McMillan only took as coach last season and is still relatively fresh to the Super Rugby scene. The Chiefs are still establishing their identity under the former policeman and while some players have been on the scene for a number of years, there are others who are still fresh. Men like Tupou Vaa’i, Samipeni Finau, Ollie Norris, George Dyer, Naitoa Ah Kuoi, Xavier Roe, Rameka Poihipi and Chase Tiatia are only into their second or third years of Super Rugby. Others, like Josh Ioane, might have some experienced under their belt but are still new to the environment.

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Ioane only joined the Chiefs this season and has had precious little time on the field thanks to injuries and illness, running out for just his fifth start in Chiefs colours on Friday night – and his first in the No 15 jersey. Ioane is a good player – great at times – but he can also struggle under pressure, and there’s no better way to put a player under pressure than to throw them onto the park against a humming Crusaders side who have never lost a play-off match at home.

On three occasions, Ioane found himself one man in from the sideline with the ball in hand. With a well-timed pass, he could have sent Jonah Lowe in for a try on each occasion – or at least given Lowe the best chance at finishing off the opportunity. All three opportunities were scuppered, however, with the ball either taking too long to get to the right winger, or not getting there at all, as was the case in the final play immediately preceding halftime. The fact that Friday’s match was just the second time this season that Ioane and Lowe have started a match together won’t have helped – and that’s the general theme across the board for the Chiefs.

But just because the Crusaders are a better unit as a whole, it doesn’t mean individual players will be better options at test level for the national side.

At hooker, Codie Taylor certainly lost the points decision to Samisoni Taukei’aho, who was the Chiefs’ biggest metre-eater and sat behind only Will Jordan overall. Brodie McAlister added good impetus for the Crusaders when he entered the fray and might just be the fourth-best hooker in the country at present.

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The Chiefs front-row in general had the better of their opposition, with Aidan Ross winning two penalties over fellow All Blacks hopeful Oli Jager at scrum time – and it probably should have been more.

The battle in the second-rows was evenly matched with young Crusaders lock Zach Gallagher stepping in at the last moment for Sam Whitelock and making a good fist of things up against two All Blacks in the form of Brodie Retallick and Tupou Vaa’i. Vaa’i, for all his obvious talents, can fade in and out of matches and is still another year or two away from developing into a top-line lock at the national level but will likely have his name read out on Monday afternoon.

In the loose forwards, Cullen Grace had the better of Pita Gus Sowakula, who has faded as the season has worn on. Sowakula’s inability to ground the ball over the line after finding himself in the perfect position to do so in the 12th minute of the match summed up his night, with the big number 8 hesitating when he really needed to simply commit to going for the score. Grace, meanwhile, was caught a metre short from a scrum breakaway and against all odds managed to get the ball on the chalk. It was a big contrast between a man coming into form and a man departing it.

Luke Jacobson was one of the Chiefs’ best, tackling fiercely while also causing problems at the breakdown for the Crusaders, and likely secured his spot in the All Blacks squad – although Ethan Blackadder’s injury likely meant he was already pencilled in.

Richie Mo’unga put in a trademark performance at No 10 for the Crusaders but will sit behind Beauden Barrett in the pecking order while Brad Weber might be feeling nervous. With Aaron Smith, Finlay Christie, Folau Fakatava, TJ Perenara and Weber all competing for what will likely be just three halfback spots for the July series, Weber may find himself running out for the Maori All Blacks.

In the battle of the All Blacks 12s, David Havili scored the points victory thanks to his relatively tidy display, despite not necessarily impressing. Quinn Tupaea, meanwhile, looked like one of the Chiefs players most likely to break the line but too often coughed up the ball in possession and threw one terrible pass into the bleachers when a pinpoint delivery was needed to send Alex Nankivell in for a try. If Tupaea hadn’t been called upon to try and almost single-handedly generate go-forward in the backs, would he have overplayed his hand as he did against the Crusaders? Jack Goodhue, meanwhile, also delivered an understated game – but contributed 17 tackles and zero misses.

Sevu Reece struggled to get involved on the wing but Will Jordan reinforced his capabilities as a fullback, and could finally earn some time in that role for the All Blacks this year if Foster and co decide that neither Havili, Tupaea, Goodhue or Roger Tuivasa-Sheck are the men to take on the responsibilities at second five-eighth.

The Blues and Crusaders will undoubtedly provide the All Blacks with the bulk of their players this season, with some key performers from the three other Kiwi franchises set to fill in some gaps – but Ian Foster and his fellow selectors will have to wade their way through the tapes to determine whether individuals in the Crusaders and Blues set-ups can replicate their form in the test arena without necessarily having the same systems and players in place to support them.

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