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'Extraordinary': The player who could benefit most from Josh Lord's long-term injury

By Alex McLeod
Photo: John Davidson / www.photosport.nz

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One of the standout players from the Super Rugby Pacific finals may be in line to benefit the most from All Blacks lock Josh Lord’s season-ending knee injury.

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That’s the verdict from former Highlanders and Crusaders lock Joe Wheeler, who believes one-test former All Blacks utility forward Cullen Grace could receive a test recall as Lord’s replacement.

The All Blacks announced last week that Lord will be sidelined for the rest of the year after an MRI scan revealed that the two-test second rower had ruptured his ACL.

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Aotearoa Rugby Pod | Episode 19
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Aotearoa Rugby Pod | Episode 19

Lord had earlier been named as one of five locks in the 36-man All Blacks squad to face Ireland over the coming weeks, but the All Blacks confirmed that no replacement has yet been called into the side in place of the 21-year-old.

That may change, though, following the revelation that veteran lock Sam Whitelock played through last weekend’s Super Rugby Pacific final with a broken thumb,

Such news has cast Whitelock in doubt for next weekend’s series-opener against Ireland in Auckland, with his possible unavailability leaving the All Blacks short-stocked.

Facing the prospect of having Brodie Retallick, Scott Barrett and Tupou Vaa’i as New Zealand’s only second row options, Wheeler told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod that the All Blacks would do well to call-up Grace following his impressive efforts for the Crusaders.

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Capable of playing at lock and blindside flanker, Grace was a standout at No 8 throughout the Super Rugby Pacific playoffs as the Crusaders beat the Blues last Saturday to clinch their sixth title in as many years.

The 22-year-old played a key role in his side’s win at Eden Park in a match where the Blues struggled badly at the lineout.

Losing 10 of their 19 throws, Grace stole the ball twice from opposition lineouts, while he also won four of his side’s own throws, leading his team in both departments.

The week beforehand, Grace starred in the Crusaders’ semi-final win over the Chiefs, scoring two tries, making the most running metres of any forward in his team (41) and registering 22 tackles.

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By the end of the season, Grace finished third in the Super Rugby Pacific tackle count (181) and was the only loose forward to feature in the competition’s top ten for lineout wins (39).

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It’s for that reason that Wheeler to sang Grace’s praises as a player who would offer a point of difference for the All Blacks should they call him into the squad as Lord’s replacement.

“Without a doubt, I think he has throughout the whole finals series,” Wheeler told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod when asked if Grace has put his hand up for a test re-call.

“With the injury to Lord, I believe that could open an opportunity for him due to the fact that I think, in terms of that loose forward balance, they probably were looking at Tupou Vaa’i to cover the six role alongside Akira Ioane.

“I believe, in the last couple of weeks, Cullen Grace has been extraordinary for that Crusaders side. He offers something different to Tupou Vaa’i and Akira Ioane in terms of his work rate.

“He’s a different player. He’s not the ball-carrying threat that maybe Akira Ioane is, but what he does is he smashes rucks, he smashes people in the tackle, and he’s a brilliant lineout exponent.

“I think you saw that on the weekend. He just doesn’t go away, and I think his stocks, you look back two years when he first got named in this All Blacks side, he’s starting to find that form that catapulted him into that team in his rookie season.

“He’s a hard-nosed, no-nonsense footballer who does all the simple things really, really well with a real hard edge, so I think he’s going to come back into this conversation in terms of maybe getting called up with the injury to Lord.

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“I know they said that they probably have got sufficient cover, but I think Tupou Vaa’i covers both loose forward and lock.

“I think that opens up an opportunity to either bring in a [Shannon] Frizell or a Cullen Grace into that squad because I think we’re a little bit light in those really hard-nosed, high work rate loose forwards to play in that six jersey.”

By contrast, former All Blacks hooker James Parsons noted that Chiefs loose forward Luke Jacobson couldn’t be overlooked as a potential replacement for Lord.

Jacobson was among a slew of high-profile omissions from the All Blacks squad that was announced last week, but Parsons told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod that the versatile back rower could yet come into the reckoning due to his broad skillset.

“I don’t think we can forget about Luke Jacobson, either. I think it does provide an opportunity for him,” Parsons said.

“He’s massive in the similar areas you’ve sort of just touched on, so I think maybe they’re waiting to see the form of locks, if they need extra, or they are making that decision, ‘Should we bring in another loosie and be able to cover ourselves in that way?’.

“There’s definitely an opportunity up for grabs now that Lord’s out for the season.”

The All Blacks will kick their test season off at Eden Park on July 2, when they will host Ireland in the first of three tests across New Zealand.

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