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The All Blacks might have found their first-choice loose forward trio

By Tom Raine
All Black No. 8 Luke Jacobson and All Black halfback Aaron Smith. All Blacks v Fiji, Steinlager Series, international rugby union test match. FMG Stadium Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Saturday 17 July 2021. © Copyright Photo: Bruce Lim / www.photosport.nz

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Ahead of the 2021 Steinlager Series against Tonga and Fiji, much was made of the high level of competition for places in the All Blacks squad, particularly among the loose forwards.

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With Sam Cane ruled out of contention due to an injury sustained in the Super Rugby Aotearoa season, the All Blacks selectors were handed the difficult task of replacing arguably one of their best performers from last year.

Yet, under Ian Foster, the All Blacks have seemingly framed Cane’s absence as primarily an opportunity to continue in the development of some of the country’s top young players. By way of example, among the loose forwards selected for the 2021 series, Ardie Savea at 27-years-old is both the oldest and the most experienced of the bunch. In fact, Savea has more test appearances than the rest of his loose forwards contingent combined (who together also average just 25 years of age).

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The All Blacks have put in a strong performance in their final game of the Steinlager Series.

Put another way, Foster’s current crop of loose forwards have a sense of ‘future-proofing’ about them – part of a steady build towards a World Cup in 2023. Given last night’s 60-13 victory over Fiji in Hamilton, Foster and All Blacks assistant coach John Plumtree will likely be pleased with the progress shown by their men, displaying assured capability in learning from their tough experiences in Dunedin last weekend.

Plumtree, in the post-match, highlighted a certain progression seen in his side following the bruising introduction Fiji’s European-based forwards provided last week.

“We put a bigger focus on our support being a little bit closer this week, whipping the jackalers out a little bit earlier,” he said. “Once we sorted a couple of things out at halftime we got even better, so that was really good. I think as Fiji got a little bit tired, it was a bit easier for us, but certainly when they were fresh, [they showed] pretty great intent to slow our ball down, to kill our ball, stop us from playing. Once we got that right, we were away.”

The dominance of the Flying Fijians in the breakdown area was one of the standout stories from their 57-23 loss to the All Blacks in Dunedin last week and the reaction of the All Blacks this week in fighting that threat would have pleased Plumtree.

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Commenting on the individual performances of some of his players, Plumtree was buoyed by what he saw of his loose forwards – Akira Ioane, Ardie Savea and Luke Jacobson lining up as a trio for the first time ever.

“I thought Luke Jacobson was busy in all parts of the game,” said Plumtree. “He was great at the lineout, applying pressure defensively as well, and then he did his fair share of ball-carrying and tackling, so I thought Luke had a pretty good all-round game.”

Jacobson has featured in every game of this Steinlager series since his return to the All Blacks squad and has impressed with both his attacking and defensive physicality. Since Kieran Read vacated the No 8 jersey, both Savea and Hoskins Sotutu have been utilised in the position, yet Jacobson’s recent performances might have perhaps illustrated to Foster that he is indeed the man to take over that responsibility at the base of the scrum.

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Plumtree also spoke highly of Akira Ioane, who has featured twice this series at blindside flanker and shown an ever-developing depth to his game.

“I thought Akira Ioane was strong with his ball-carrying around the edges of the rucks,” he remarked. “He got us momentum at crucial parts of the game.”

Certainly, Ioane’s attacking play on Saturday evening epitomised what has come to be expected of his prodigious talent. With him on the park, Foster arguably has at his disposal a different skillset to when Shannon Frizell is played there and it may be the case that the style of play Foster wishes to deploy will affect who is selected at No 6. Certainly, in 2020, four out of a possible six starts were granted to Frizell, so competition for that spot might yet hang in the balance – but it Ioane who finished the season with the 6 on his back.

Positives were also present in Ardie Savea’s 50th All Blacks appearance, finishing the night as the side’s top tackler and grabbing a try for good measure. Last night also marked Savea’s return to the All Blacks No 7 jersey since the losing World Cup semi-final of 2019.

Above all, Plumtree was happy to have Savea back in the team.

“In his first game back for a while, he was a little bit rusty in some parts, but when he got the ball in his hand, he showed what he can do,” commented Plumtree. “He put in a couple of great hits as well so it was good to have him back in there.”

All seven loose forwards were given starts in the Steinlager Series with Ioane, Dalton Papalii and Jacobson combining in the first match against Tonga before Frizell, Ethan Blackadder and Sotutu were given the opportunity to showcase their wares against Fiji last week.

If anything has come from this mid-year series it has arguably been the continued growth of the loose forwards group. Whilst it remains to be seen whether Ioane, Savea and Jacobson will feature as a trio in future, Foster and Plumtree will now be assured of the considerable options they possess when it comes to their loose forwards ahead of this year’s Rugby Championship.

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The All Blacks might have found their first-choice loose forward trio

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