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'Give him the inside running': The leading All Blacks midfield contenders

By Alex McLeod
(Photos / Photosport)

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As the All Blacks close in on July’s three-test series against Ireland, time is running out for the national selectors to finalise their midfield contingent.

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Head coach Ian Foster and his colleagues will name four or five midfielders in a 36-man squad to play the Irish, but, with a hoard of contenders pushing for selection, few players are certainties to be included in that positional group.

With veteran star Anton Lienert-Brown ruled out through a shoulder injury, Blues standout Rieko Ioane is arguably the only lock-in pick from New Zealand’s healthy midfield stocks.

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Aotearoa Rugby Pod | Episode 13
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Aotearoa Rugby Pod | Episode 13

The rest of the available spots are well and truly up for grabs, but former All Blacks hooker James Parsons believes Chiefs youngster Quinn Tupaea is the incumbent to feature at second-five during the Irish series.

That’s the verdict delivered by the ex-Blues captain on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod as he spoke highly of Tupaea’s performance in a losing effort for the Chiefs against the Brumbies in Hamilton last weekend.

“You’d have to think Quinn’s the incumbent. I thought he was fantastic,” Parsons told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.

“I spoke about [Len] Ikitau and his metres post-contact and getting through the other side of the defence, Quinn was exactly the same and he just seems to be getting better and better, but more confident in his own ability.

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“That will transpire [at test level], so you’d have to give him the inside running.”

Those comments come after Tupaea – who started at second-five in New Zealand’s last test of 2021, a defeat to France in Paris – was scrutinised by All Blacks great Sir John Kirwan and former Highlanders lock Joe Wheeler on The Breakdown last week.

Kirwan said that while Tupaea “is definitely All Black material”, he noted that the seven-test international “needs consistency around the little parts of the game”.

Wheeler, meanwhile, was “underwhelmed” by Tupaea’s defensive work against the Brumbies, although ex-All Blacks wing Jeff Wilson said the 23-year-old’s powerful attacking traits are what Foster’s side “desperately need”.

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Wilson’s sentiments were echoed by Parsons, who added that uncapped Highlanders powerhouse Thomas Umaga-Jensen could be a left-field addition in Foster’s squad after starring for the Dunedin-based Super Rugby Pacific franchise this year.

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Umaga-Jensen has been a shining light for the southerners, impressing with his physicality at both second-five and centre in a side that Parsons said has struggled for attacking ascendency.

It’s for that reason that Parsons said the 24-year-old – whose strong form continued on Friday when the Highlanders scored an emphatic 61-10 win over the Western Force in Dunedin – could be devastating when part of a more dominant attacking team.

“This is a little bit out there, and I’m not saying that he’ll potentially get picked for the All Blacks, but a guy that hasn’t had always front-foot ball, Thomas Umaga-Jensen,” the Blues centurion told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.

“Even on the weekend [against the Reds], he’s seriously talented. He’s got a bright future if he can just keep at it.

“In terms of a team not going that well and performing the way he is, imagine when he can sort of get on that front-foot ball. It’d be outstanding.”

Both Tupaea and Umaga-Jensen are in competition for places in the All Blacks squad with star Blues recruit Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, who has dominated headlines since his switch to rugby union from rugby league last year.

Speculation has been rife about whether the 2018 Dally M Medallist will be fast-tracked into the All Blacks after only a handful of Super Rugby Pacific games in his debut campaign.

A shoulder injury sustained earlier in the year has played its part in Tuivasa-Sheck’s limited appearances, but in the few matches he has played, the 2013 NRL champion has shown glimpses of his game-breaking ability.

Those glimpses have become greater and greater with the more game time Tuivasa-Sheck has received, but Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall believes it won’t be until the Super Rugby Pacific playoffs when the 28-year-old begins to realise his potential.

With the league-leading Blues on track to host as many as three knockout matches in the competition’s post-season, Hall told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod that the intensity of those games will make them comparable to that of test rugby.

As such, if Tuivasa-Sheck can perform in those fixtures, Hall said he will showcase his credentials as an All Blacks second-five.

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“I think with Rog, unfortunately he had those injuries, and I think the biggest thing for him is that he’s going to be able to accumulate more time being able to play these trans-Tasman games, being able to find his feet for what it is to be a 12,” Hall said.

“I think the biggest thing for Rog is going to be in the later part of the competition, when the Blues are in those final stages and playing against high-intensity scenarios that you’re going to need against Ireland or [at a] World Cup, where it’s going be a hotly-contested and you’re going to make decisions under pressure against a high-level team.

“I think for Rog, those kind of moments, that’s when I think he’s going to find his balance and being able to get those kind of minutes and understanding of what it is to be a 12.

“When push comes to shove in the finals game, and if he gets the chance to start, that’s where I’ll see how he performs in that kind of role.”

Parsons agreed with Hall’s assertions as he said the experience that Tuivasa-Sheck is gaining by playing between Ioane and first-five Beauden Barrett in a star-studded Blues backline puts him in good stead for All Blacks selection.

“The more confidence that Roger can get with Beaudy and Rieko, it gives him an opportunity to have that cohesive nature and the confidence of the selectors to potentially give him an opportunity against Ireland,” Parsons said.

Inclusion in Foster’s squad won’t come easy, though, as Hall highlighted a raft of other candidates vying for places in New Zealand’s midfield.

“You’ve also got Quinn Tupaea, you’ve got David Havili, who was in the All Blacks last year and can cover a lot of positions as well as 12,” Hall told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.

“You’ve got Braydon Ennor, Jack Goodhue’s back with us as well, and you’ve also got Alex Nankivell, who’s again continuing to put his hand up for being a 12 or 13 in the squad.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how many they do select. Are they going to select five or do they keep it to four? You’ve also got Jordie Barrett, who they think might be possibly a 12 as well, so there’s a lot of ways you can go.

“I guess, for the midfielders, it’s keep putting your hand up, keep putting in good shifts and making a good case for you to be in a four or five-man midfielder selection for the Rugby Championship and Ireland.”

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