Ethan Blackadder's injury could prolong some All Blacks careers
Ian Foster was going to struggle to narrow down his loose forward selections for the All Blacks‘ upcoming test series with Ireland but the loss of Ethan Blackadder to injury will perhaps make the picture a little bit clearer.
Blackadder was one of the country’s biggest movers and shakers last year. While he’d been touted as an All Black in waiting for a number of seasons – but kept finding himself sidelined through injury – it was only in 2021 that the hulking loose forward was finally able to string together some regular performances for the Crusaders and he was appropriately rewarded come July when he received his first call-up to the national side.
Blackadder was not just one of eight loose forwards that clocked up minutes in the black jersey last season, however, he accumulated the fourth-most appearances of any of the squad’s loose forwards, behind only the first-choice trio of Akira Ioane, Dalton Papalii and Ardie Savea. Regardless of which flank he was was asked to fill in on, Blackadder was a strong presence on the park and certainly ended the year with his reputation bolstered.
But a shoulder injury has now robbed Blackadder of the opportunity to back up his strong efforts from last season and potentially opened the door for another All Blacks bolter – or at least helped keep a man in the squad who was potentially facing the axe.
The All Blacks were never going to name eight loose forwards in the next week’s 36-man squad. In all likelihood, we’ll hear just six or seven names read out on Monday afternoon, which would have meant at least two of last year’s brood getting the cut.
The likes of Ioane, Papalii (although he is currently sidelined for the short-term following appendicitis), Savea and captain Sam Cane are all safe, while Blackadder would have almost certainly been retained too, leaving space for one or two more loosies in the squad. Luke Jacobson, Hoskins Sotutu and Shannon Frizell were the other men called upon last season, in order of appearances, and could all slip into the squad for the upcoming test series – but that would be dependant on the All Blacks running with seven loose forwards (as opposed to, for example, five locks) and also not bringing anyone new into the fold.
The first requirement is certainly not a given. Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick and Scott Barrett are all experienced All Blacks second-rowers while Tupou Vaa’i and Josh Lord have continued to develop into formidable players despite their youth and Foster and his fellow selectors may want to see the next generation given opportunities to prove their wares in the test arena while still holding onto the senior options. Given the abilities of Barrett and Vaa’i to cover blindside flanker – with Vaa’i a possible long-term option in the No 6 jersey – seven loosies may not be required.
While there have been a number of loose forwards playing the house down in Super Rugby Pacific who weren’t utilised by the national side last year, it’s difficult to envisage the All Blacks will opt for any new blood in 2022 when they can instead hone the talent they already have.
Marino Mikaele-Tu’u has been excellent for the Highlanders this season – arguably their best player and certainly one of the competition’s top performers – but is there much chance he forces himself ahead of all of Ioane, Savea, Jacobson, Sotutu (and Blackadder, upon his return) in the pecking order for the No 8 jersey before next year’s Rugby World Cup? The situation is similar for 2020 All Black Cullen Grace.
That’s not to suggest they shouldn’t be picked, but Foster is likely to favour his tried and true – even if they’ve not necessarily proven themselves at test level just yet.
Whatever happens, the men most in danger of missing out are likely Sotutu and Frizell, two players who specialise in just one of the three loose forward roles. Jacobson, like Blackadder, has spent time on the openside flank at Super Rugby level, has earned the bulk of his minutes throughout his career on the blindside flank, and prefers to play at number 8, making him the perfect bench option for the men in black, and offers something different thanks to his useful footwork and concrete shoulder.
Sotutu, however, has been in superb form for the Blues and the soft skills he brings to the table are second to none – there’s not a forward in the country that can throw a spiral pass quite like the athletic number 8. Frizell, on the other hand, has managed just one appearance for the Highlanders in the back half of the season due to injury and despite being in good form at the start of the season, has never proven himself as a test rugby player, despite his many opportunities. If any player from the Highlanders’ loose forward stocks deserve the opportunity to wear the silver fern in 2022, it’s Mikaele-Tu’u, and Foster and co will struggle to justify the selection of Frizell when there are other players banging down the door or who are desperate for the chance to show what they’re capable of.
A long-term injury to Blackadder could save the blushes of the men most likely to face the swing of the axe at this stage of the season – but that’s entirely dependent on the selectors opting for seven loose forwards, which is not a given. Four of the men likely to fill those spots, Akira Ioane, Hoskin Sotutu, Luke Jacobson and Sam Cane, will all feature in this weekend’s Super Rugby Pacific semi-finals and have one last opportunity to put their best feet forward while the men who’s seasons have already come to an end will simply have to cross their fingers and hope for the best come Monday.
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