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'He's probably plateaued': The two candidates pushing for All Blacks No 8 cover

By Sam Smith
(Photos by Hannah Peters/Getty Images and Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

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While the Chiefs have struggled for consistency in the latest rounds of Super Rugby Pacific, breakout star Pita Gus Sowakula must still be considered as an All Blacks contender.

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That’s the verdict from Kiwi referee Ben O’Keeffe, who believes Sowakula is still very much in the conversation for All Blacks selection despite an apparent decline in hype surrounding the Fijian No 8.

Speaking on Sky Sport NZ’s The Breakdown, O’Keeffe said that Sowakula’s style as a ball-running No 8 “hasn’t been seen in a long time”, making him a strong presence for the Chiefs despite their wavering form in recent weeks.

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The Breakdown | Episode 14 | Sky Sport NZ
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The Breakdown | Episode 14 | Sky Sport NZ

“I think there should be [hype], he’s playing well week-after-week for the Chiefs,” O’Keeffe told The Breakdown.

“They are going to be a big team in the playoffs and he is a part of that, the way that he can carry that ball off the scrum.

“I haven’t seen a No 8 do it in his style for a long time. He still impresses me.”

All Blacks great Sir John Kirwan added that Sowakula’s form has had a positive impact on his Blues counterpart Hoskins Sotutu, who made his All Blacks debut two years ago on the back of an outstanding Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign.

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The 23-year-old played in five of New Zealand’s six tests in 2020, but his standing within the side dropped last year as he featured in only five of 15 tests, with starts against Fiji at home, and Argentina, USA and Italy away.

However, Kirwan has been impressed by Sotutu in Super Rugby Pacific this year, suggesting that Sowakula’s performance have forced the 10-test international to lift his game for the Blues.

As such, the 1987 World Cup-winning wing told The Breakdown that he would pick both players in the All Blacks squad as he noted that Sowakula brings something “a little bit different” that is currently missing from the team.

“I think his form has been very good for Hoskins Sotutu, who has actually picked up his game in the last five weeks,” Kirwan said.

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“I’m sure they will be in competition. I would take both. I think Pita Gus Sowakula gives us something a little bit different.

“Like I said, I think Hoskins has got back to the form he was in when he was picked a couple of years ago. He’s hitting guys, he’s working hard over the ball, he’s carrying hard.

“But Pita just gives us something a little bit different. You’d like to bring him on late in a test match.”

All Blacks centurion Mils Muliaina also backed Sowakula to be considered on the basis that he brings something that is missing from the All Blacks.

“He’s really matured. That’s what we’ve really seen. He’s probably plateaued a little bit, and every guy is sort of different,” Muliaina told The Breakdown of Sowakula.

“Hoskins has come in and taken his time to get the form he has been at. Pita Gus came out with a hiss and a roar and, all of a sudden, just plateaued a bit and then has come back into form.

“I think when you look at the All Blacks, he brings something really different. He ball carries, he brings excitement, he jumps over players, he throws balls around the corner, so I think he is definitely in the conversation.”

Both players would be in competition with Ardie Savea for the No 8 jersey, who is the preferred option at the back of the scrum when captain Sam Cane plays at openside flanker.

Chiefs loose forward Luke Jacobson, a versatile back rower who can cover multiple positions, was also used at No 8 in 2021, and has pushed Sowakula into the No 6 jersey at the Chiefs in recent weeks.

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