'His performances and desire to get back in there has led to them being better and better each week': Why the All Blacks loose forward race remains wide open
It wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that New Zealand has never had a greater trove of talented loose forwards lining up for selection in the national side.
Head coach Ian Foster called upon seven players last year who could cover the back row, including regulars Sam Cane, Ardie Savea and Shannon Frizell, as well as Dalton Papalii and the uncapped quartet of Hoskins Sotutu, Akira Ioane, Cullen Grace and Du’Plessis Kirifi.
While Sotutu and Ioane had opportunities to showcase their skills – which they took with open arms – Grace was limited to just a few minutes off the bench while Kirifi was a late call-up who was never required for test duty.
Outside that group of seven, there’s a handful of talented players who were likely a hair’s breadth away from selection including Blues utility Tom Robinson, Highlander Marino Mikaele-Tu’u and two-cap All Black Luke Jacobson – who was named in the 2019 Rugby World Cup squad but was pulled from the competition due to concussion, then struggled with injuries again in 2020.
That trio, along with last year’s squad members, have started the season in superb form while the likes of Ethan Blackadder, Tom Christie and Billy Harmon have all impressed throughout the five rounds to date.
Speaking on the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, former All Black James Parsons has suggested that the biggest question for the All Blacks loose forward trio still revolves around who will play at blindside flanker – although he also suggested that even the No 8 jersey could be up for grabs.
“I think you’d have to say Shannon and Akira are the inside runners [for No 6] after last year and the way things finished up,” he said. “They’re backing up with form. I think those two are the front runners and it will be on what team they’re playing and what style they want to play.
“I think they’ve got strengths to either part of their game. I really think Akira came into his own and I think he’s got the ability to go to both styles a little bit easier. He’s obviously great in the wide channel, as we know, but he’s grown that tougher edge into his game and [Frizell] does bring that harder test match level edge and he is getting more and more of that physical prowess about him and maybe he just needs that wider channel ball running game that the All Blacks like out of their 6 as well.”
Frizell and Ioane job-shared the blindside role last season, with Frizell wearing the No 6 jersey on four occasions and Ioane getting opportunities against Australia and Argentina.
Robinson, Papalii, Grace and Jacobson are all options for that same jersey this year but none of the four have regularly played on the blindside flank throughout this season’s Super Rugby Aotearoa competition.
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Robinson has mostly slotted in at lock for the Blues while teammate Papalii is very much an openside flanker who can cover all three loose forward roles.
Grace and Jacobson, meanwhile, have run out in the No 8 jersey.
“Luke Jacobson, I like him at 8,” Parsons said. “Honestly, I don’t think it’s as easy to say [who will wear No 8]. Ardie’s there, I think Hoskins has got to be in that conversation, I think Luke Jacobson has to be in that conversation. Ethan Blackadder as well.
“There is great depth but I do think the incumbents, on the performance they’ve put in the jersey, will have the first run and if they nail it and take it, they’ll hold it. Then maybe if they can get out and secure trophies, then opportunities will present themselves in that jersey.
“But you don’t just get given runs in that jersey, you have to earn them.”
With the loose forward treasure chest bursting at the seams, Foster and his fellow selectors will have to make some tough decision come test season – but it’s a good position to be in, said Parsons.
“I think it’s good and it brings the best out of it for Super Rugby Aotearoa because everyone knows this: you’ve got to play your best footy week-in and week-out to get in the squad and then you know you’ve got your hands full to get in the team. I don’t think it’s a bad thing.
“You think about someone like Luke Jacobson, he really wants to get back in that black jersey and in a team that was considered struggling, his performances and desire to get back in there has led to them being better and better each week and giving them the opportunity to turn it around and now they’re in a discussion of making a final.
“Bryn just said Dalton plays big, I think he’s the same. When he hits, you stay down. When he carries, he carries through the contact and gets those post-contact metres, as they like to say. It’s all well and good getting these running metres but how many metres do you actually get after contact is a true measure of someone’s carry – like an Ardie, I think he’s probably the best at post-contact metres. Luke Jacobson is right up there as well and we saw the other night, he’s got a good turn of pace and a good offload.”
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Parsons’ co-panellist, Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall, was also full of praise for the Chiefs loose forward – who’s stepped into the role of All Blacks lock Brodie Retallick, currently playing in Japan.
“I think the biggest thing around him is that they obviously have Sam Cane and traditionally they’ve had Brodie Retallick as well,” said Hall. “He’s been a massive loss for them but Jacobsobn coming back has just brought that real grunt back into the pack and he’s doing those little things – not around lineouts – but around imposing his will.
“We talk about playing big with Dalton, he’s playing big and he’s having those moments that Brodie would have when he was at the Chiefs. I think they missed that last year, especially with Luke being injured, so long may that continue.”
While Jacobson’s Chiefs have the week off, there will still be a gluttony of enticing loose forward battles on show this weekend, with the Crusaders hosting the Highlanders and the Blues travelling to Wellington to take on the Hurricanes.
No doubt, the All Blacks selectors will be tuning in to see who gets the upper hand in their respective matches – and ponder whether that might translate to the international arena.
Listen to the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:
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