'He's got a huge opportunity': The All Blacks midfielder with the most to gain
With Ngani Laumape heading to France, Jack Goodhue sidelined for the season and Anton Lienert-Brown on the mend from minor surgery, the All Blacks have four options available to fill the midfield in the opening tests of 2021.
After a three-year absence from the national side, David Havili’s undeniable form at No 12 for the Crusaders has seen him return to the fold alongside his recent midfield partner, Braydon Ennor.
That leaves 22-year-old Quinn Tupaea, perhaps the most surprising pick in the All Blacks squad that was named on Monday evening.
Tupaea, while he’s played at outside centre at various points throughout his young career, has looked at home at second five-eighth for the Chiefs this year and forged a strong combination with Lienert-Brown.
He’s also the only through-and-through No 12 in the squad, alongside Havili, with that pair likely to share minutes at inside centre against Tonga and Fiji.
Ennor and Ioane – who are both capable wingers – will likely go to battle for the No 13 jersey.
While still just a young man, Tupaea has been a standout during Super Rugby this season but was initially named in the Maori All Blacks squad for their upcoming series with Samoa. That understandably led many to assume that he wouldn’t be called up to the national squad – given that other eligible players like Akira Ioane and Tyrel Lomax were omitted from the Maori team due to their All Blacks commitments.
Speaking on the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, former All Black James Parsons has suggested that while Tupaea’s selection may have been a bit of a surprise due to his inclusion in the Maori team, the midfielder’s performances throughout 2021 speak for themselves.
“I don’t think there are bolters as such, anymore,” Parsons said. “I think he’s caught a lot of people by surprise. I’ll be honest, it’s not that you were expecting him to be picked but you’re not shocked that he’s going to be an All Black either. I think we always knew he was going to be an All Black.”
"When the #AllBlacks squad is properly dissected, its flexibility and versatility becomes obvious … But what’s maybe not so apparent is that there is a toughness about this team that was maybe not there last year."
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After making the shift to No 12 for the Chiefs in the early stages of 2021, having spent much of last year with 13 on his back, Tupaea was sidelined with an MCL for the middle part of the campaign. He came back with a vengeance in the final rounds of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, however, to finish the season in solid form against the Australian sides.
“We spoke in depth during Super Rugby Aotearoa about how impressive he was,” Parsons said. “I’ve always been a big fan of his.
“He got that injury just as he was starting to have great success in Aotearaoa and then Alex Nankivell stepped up massively for the Chiefs. Then [Tupaea] came back and I think that performance against the Rebels was outstanding and then he backed it up against the Waratahs the following week. I suppose those sort of performances nailed down [a spot]. He only had three games in Trans-Tasman but statistically, he was off the charts.
“He was involved heavily and his skillset is right up there. He isn’t the complete package yet, probably doesn’t have that kicking game. But in terms of his attacking game with ball in hand and his physicality in defence, and also his physicality and willingness to want to clean rucks, and all those sorts of little extra effort areas.
“The uncoachable stuff that’s either in you or it’s not, he’s high in. You know that when he gets in an environment like the All Blacks, his game’s only going to go from strength to strength.”
Parsons didn’t necessarily advocate for Tupaea to be rushed straight into the starting jersey, however, and co-panellist Bryn Hall had plenty of positive things to say about his Crusaders teammates Havili and Ennor.
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“[Ennor] came back from a pretty devastating injury in that North v South last year and worked really, really hard in the off-season,” Hall said. “Full credit to our physio staff getting him back to where he needed to be because he actually ended up becoming a better player with [high] scores in strength, power and speed – which were already off the charts before he did his ACL.
“He did really well to get back in the Trans-Tasman and got a few good games under his belt. I think the fact that he is an out and out centre is probably a good position for him, especially in that environment. You’ve got a lot of those players, Anton, Quin, can alter between 12 and 13 whereas Braydon’s an out and out 13.
“Davey, he’s probably the form 12 in the comp – especially in New Zealand, that’s my belief. You wouldn’t be surprised to see him getting the first crack in the first game.”
On a previous episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, former Wallabies prop and current analyst Ben Darwin spoke of the importance cohesion plays when selecting a team – which might point to All Blacks coach Ian Foster employing a midfield of Havili and Ennor, given they’ve played together for the Crusaders and could be operating outside another Crusader in the form of first five Richie Mo’unga.
“With Richie there, you’d have to think that 10, 12 combination, they’ll look to give that a run first and foremost,” Parsons said. “But honestly, I think Quin Tupaea, give him an opportunity. If he can deliver that sort of performance that we saw against the Rebels, he’s got a huge opportunity to almost stamp his mark and hold a position in this All Blacks squad for a long time.”
The All Blacks kick off their 2021 campaign with a game against Tonga on July 3 at Mount Smart Stadium in Auckland.
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