Are the All Blacks missing genuine enforcers at both blindside flanker and No. 8?
It’s a question that seems to be on some Kiwi fans’ minds in the wake of New Zealand’s shock 25-15 Tri Nations defeat at the hands of Argentina in Sydney on Saturday.
All Blacks head coach Ian Foster has primarily used Shannon Frizell at blindside flanker and Ardie Savea at No. 8 in his first few matches in his new job, with the pair starting in their respective roles in four out of a possible five tests.
As has been widely discussed in recent days, the pair and their teammates have endured mixed results across those matches, picking up just two wins, a draw and two losses.
To make matters worse, the defeat to the Pumas at Bankwest Stadium condemned the All Blacks to not only their first-ever loss to the Argentinians, but also the first time the New Zealanders have lost back-to-back tests in nine years.
However, it was the manner in which the All Blacks lost that was the most alarming aspect of the result, as the Pumas forward pack were far more determined, clinical, passionate, accurate and tenacious than their counterparts.
A performance of that quality a week after the All Blacks were upset 24-22 by the Wallabies in Brisbane has led to questions being asked over the selection of the team.
Speaking on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, Sky Sport rugby commentator Jeff McTainsh pointed to the make-up of New Zealand’s loose forward trio, opining that the All Blacks are missing a sizeable figure in the ilk of ex-All Blacks enforcer Liam Squire.
“I think there’s been a lot talked about the All Blacks loose forward trio and whether we’re missing a big body,” McTainsh said.
“I just feel like, whether he does come back into the mix at some point, we do need a big weapon like a Liam Squire.”
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Although he leapt to the defence of Frizell, who has come under criticism for his lack of discipline against Argentina, and his efforts thus far this year, fellow panellist and two-test All Blacks hooker James Parsons highlighted his Blues teammate Akira Ioane as someone capable of filling the role left by Squire.
“I’m going to be biased, and everyone will come at me again, but Akira Ioane was very effective in his 28 minutes, so I think we could see, potentially, him getting another opportunity to be that explosive [player], because he is an explosive customer,” Parsons said.
“He’s got the genetics to be as explosive as Liam Squire, and he just needs to be given a go, and he’s been given 28 minutes, but I’d like to see him get a big crack.”
Three years after making his All Blacks debut in a non-test against a French XV in Lyon, Ioane made his full test debut at blindside flanker against the Wallabies in the Brisbane loss.
Standing out through his work ethic, defence, ball-carrying, lineout jumping and ability at the breakdown inside the first half, many have called for Ioane to be given another chance after he was forced to leave the field after 28 minutes in that match due to Ofa Tuungafasi’s red card.
Just as impressive has been fellow international rookie Hoskins Sotutu, who has been a regular off the bench for the All Blacks this season after starring for the Blues throughout Super Rugby Aotearoa.
That form was recognised by Parsons, who noted that Sotutu’s impact off the bench as an attacking threat off the back of the scrum against Argentina showed how good of a player he can be.
“I’ve been speaking about that quick hook and go with Hoskins. Did you see how effective it was? The blindside flanker was still scrumming, and he’s gone,” Parsons said.
“It’s one of the most effective attacking weapons and that’s what makes him such a great No. 8 option. He’s great in the lineout, he’s great in the carry. His run metres for the time he was on the field are pretty impressive.”
Between Ioane and Sotutu, McTainsh went as far to suggest Savea’s place in New Zealand’s starting XV could come under threat when the All Blacks face off against the Pumas in their final test of the year in Newcastle next weekend.
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“What we have to go with is giving guys game time and realise we are going through a bit of a rebuilding phase,” McTainsh told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
“You’ve got Sam [Cane] there, you’ve got Ardie, you’ve got Shannon, but you’ve got a guy in Hoskins Sotutu as well that needs game time needs to develop. Akira obviously has been given another crack to show his wears, so it’s finding the mix.
“Ardie Savea, does he belong at the back of the scrum? I’m not 100 percent sure. I think he’s more on the side, so I think that’s the area they’ve got to make a decision on, really.”
When pressed further on the issue, McTainsh added: “At the end of Super Rugby, people I was talking to were saying he’s [Sotutu] got to start for the All Blacks.
“That was some of the chat, start for the All Blacks, so now is it a case of do we play him at No. 8 and you do your someone like Ardie off the bench and you have Sam at No. 7 and Shannon at No. 6? What do you do?”
To drop Savea, a nominee for World Rugby Player of the Year in 2019, from the starting All Blacks side would be a big statement of intent from Foster, who is under immense public pressure following the loss to Argentina.
However, Parsons was quick to endorse Savea’s ability, and hinted that New Zealand’s depth of loose forward talent should ease any concern about the rut the All Blacks currently find themselves in.
“Ardie’s so immense though as well. We’ve got a lot of like-for-like players, I suppose. I think we’ve got an abundance of talent in the loose forwards, because this is how hard it is to pick it.”
Following this week’s bye, Foster will announce his All Blacks side to play Argentina at McDonald Jones Stadium next Thursday.
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