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Four key Super Rugby selection battles ahead of All Blacks' World Cup quest

By Tom Vinicombe
Dominic Gardiner and Tupou Vaa'i. (Photos by Getty Images)

In just under nine months’ time, the curtain will rise on the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

The men around New Zealand who hold aspirations of featuring at the flagship event don’t have nine months to press their case for selection, however. For most, their opportunities will come to an end when the final day dawns on the upcoming Super Rugby Pacific season.


So while the All Blacks selectors will undoubtedly have to make some significant calls when they eventually announce their squad next year, many of the decisions will be made for them throughout Super Rugby.

After all, if you can’t earn regular, consistent starts for your Super Rugby side, it could put the national selectors in a difficult place come July.

Four pivotal Super Rugby selection battles:

Dom Gardiner v the rest of the Crusaders loose forwards

Be honest – who had 21-year-old Dominic Gardiner on their list of potential future All Blacks prior to November? The young loose forward was flying under the radar and his selection in the All Blacks XV was generally met with confusion, if not criticism, until he put in a mammoth shift against Ireland A and quickly silenced the doubters.

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Of course, the Crusaders aren’t exactly lacking in talented loosies, even with Pumas superstar Pablo Matera departing the champion franchise ahead of the 2023 season – but is Gardiner too good a prospect to leave out of the starting trio? In Ethan Blackadder and Cullen Grace, coach Scott Robertson (himself a former loose forward) has two players on deck who likely would have featured for the national side this year were it not for injury, as well as All Blacks XV representatives Tom Christie and Christian Lio-Willie, and new Tongan international Sione Havili Talitui.

Grace likely has the number 8 jersey locked down while Blackadder is also a must-pick. The 27-year-old is more than capable of playing on either flank, however, which means blindsiders Gardiner and Lio-Willie, and opensiders Christie and Havili Talitui, will all harbour realistic hopes of featuring regularly for the Crusaders in 2022.

Perhaps Robertson will employ a ‘horses for courses’ approach, using Blackadder at No 7 when faced with bigger forward packs and bringing in one of the two breakdown tyros for the sides that thrive on quick ball. It might be one year too early for Gardiner to make the step up to international rugby, especially with the World Cup on the horizon, but the youngster showed he’s got the potential to step up in the near future and if he can string together match after match in the No 6 jersey for the Super Rugby champions, Ian Foster may look at Gardiner as a possible solution in the ever-troubling role.


Stephen Perofeta v Beauden Barrett

More often than not, Stephen Perofeta and Beauden Barrett will both run out in the Blues starting line-up throughout the upcoming season. That’s perhaps bad news for young gun Zarn Sullivan, but it’s somewhat inevitable when you have two All Blacks teammates who, like you, are capable of stepping in at first five and fullback.


The bigger question, however, is where Perofeta and Barrett will be positioned.

Come the Super Rugby Pacific final this year, Barrett wore No 10 with Perofeta at the back – and that’s generally the combination coach Leon MacDonald employed throughout the season when both men were available. Some would argue that the Blues looked best with Perofeta at flyhalf, however, where he notched up five starts throughout the relatively successful campaign, and that’s also the role where the 25-year-old has looked sharpest for Taranaki. With Barrett now ostensibly New Zealand’s first-choice fullback (assuming brother Jordie plays in the midfield), it could be that a full season in the position for the Blues is the best thing for his own game, and it would certainly benefit the national side.

While Barrett’s a near-certainty to travel to France later this year, Perofeta is in a tougher position. He did spend the entirety of the 2022 international campaign with the All Blacks but managed just one start and two 10-second cameos off the bench. With Ian Foster demanding a physical presence at fullback who’s safe as houses under the high ball, the relatively diminutive Perofeta might be better utilised as a back-up flyhalf. He’ll be in direct competition with the more experienced Damian McKenzie, who will likely be earing most of his minutes at No 10 for the Chiefs this year. If Perofeta can back some significant time in the same role for the Blues, it might make him a more enticing prospect for the NZ selectors and reinforce his standing in the national pecking order (and it would also be of great benefit looking to the future, even if that won’t be Foster’s or MacDonald’s immediate concern).

Tupou Vaa’i v Josh Lord

Tupou Vaa’i will be disappointed with the limited opportunities he was given on the park for the All Blacks in 2022, mustering just one start and seven bit-part appearances off the bench. He won’t, however, be quite as disappointed as Josh Lord, who was ruled out of the Test campaign just days after he was named in the All Blacks squad for July with a ruptured ACL.

Unless injury strikes, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick and Scott Barrett will be on the plane to France. That leaves two spots, at most, for additional locks – and the two Chiefs youngsters will be vying with Patrick Tuipulotu for selection. Tuipulotu, as the senior lock at the Blues, will be starting week in and week out, but the same won’t necessarily be true for Vaa’i and Lord.

With Laghlan McWhannell, Manaaki Selby-Rickit and Naitoa Ah Kuoi also on the books, minutes are going to be at a premium in the second row in Chiefs country.


Vaa’i is the most experienced of the lot, both at Super Rugby and international level, but Lord was perhaps in better form throughout the 2022 competition and Clayton McMillan will have a major challenge on his hands in discerning who to partner Retallick. Of course, the former World Rugby Player of the Year will get some good breaks throughout the season which will hand opportunities to the younger understudies, but consistency will be the most important thing in propelling either of Vaa’i or Lord into the selection frame on a national level.


Braydon Ennor v Jack Goodhue

Injuries once again marred Jack Goodhue’s season, preventing him from ever playing a Test – and Crusaders teammate Braydon Ennor was the benefactor. While Ennor spent the entire season in camp with the All Blacks (bar a few breaks here and there to get some minutes under his belt with Canterbury), opportunities were few and far between on the pitch, with just one start and one bench appearance coming his way.

David Havili has the Crusaders No 12 jersey locked down but Ennor and Goodhue have shared duties at 13 over the past two seasons. Goodhue has been the preferred option when fit but Ennor offers a different skillset and unquestionable pace. Also in Ennor’s favour is the fact that Goodhue has spent so long on the sidelines through injury that it will take the 27-year-old more than a few weeks to get back up to speed, having last played a game of professional rugby in June.

At the very most, one of the two Crusaders will be in line to feature for the All Blacks in 2023 – and if either of them is to make the flight to Paris then they will need to regularly be accruing time on the park to prove both their fitness and their capabilities in the midfield.


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