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Picking an All Blacks squad at the halfway point of Super Rugby Aotearoa

By Alex McLeod

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After five rounds of action, we have arrived at the halfway point of the second edition of Super Rugby Aotearoa.

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The story remains very much the same as last year from the Crusaders’ point of view – another year, another trophy that appears more and more certain to be stowed away at the Christchurch headquarters for another year as each week passes.

Led by the seemingly unconquerable Scott Robertson, the reigning champions look destined to claim their fifth consecutive championship after they dismantled each franchise without much of a challenge in the opening half of the season.

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Whether anyone can shock the Crusaders in the grand final in over a month’s time remains to be seen, but the tussle for a place in New Zealand’s biggest domestic match of the season should provide plenty of incentive for players to step up and perform.

Do that, and they could be rewarded with an All Blacks jersey should the scheduled July tests against Italy and Fiji take place as planned, although some have already put their hands up for selection in Ian Foster’s first-up squad of the year.

While there could still yet be a whole Trans-Tasman competition to take place between now and that announcement, it feels like the halfway stage of the Aotearoa tournament is an appropriate time to assess who is in the running to make the cut.

Assuming Foster’s first squad of 2021 will consist of 35 players, as it did when he named his first-ever roster last year, the make-up of the side is likely to stay the same, meaning six props should be included.

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Of the six that were named last year, Joe Moody, Ofa Tuungafasi, Nepo Laulala, Karl Tu’inukuafe and Alex Hodgman have all done little to harm their chances of retaining their places in the national camp.

Some ill-discipline on Moody’s and Tuungafasi’s part aside, all five have continued their good form from last season into this year and, provided nothing disastrous happens over the coming weeks and months, should slot back into Foster’s playing group.

Hurricanes prop Tyrel Lomax was the other member of that sextet, but he may be feeling the pressure from Crusaders late bloomer George Bower.

The uncapped 28-year-old is capable of playing either side of the scrum and was a shock call-up to the All Blacks squad to travel with the side to Australia for last year’s Tri-Nations.

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Although he didn’t take to the field during his time on the other side of the Tasman, Bower’s inclusion in the touring party is indicative of where he stands in the national pecking order.

 

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Even before his rapid rise to the national squad, Bower had been a regular inclusion in the reigning champions’ match day teams, and that can be attributed to his versatility, strong scrummaging and willingness to get involved across the park.

Tipping the scales at 118kg after adding an extra 7kg to his frame over the off-season, Bower looks ready for test rugby, even if he struggles to start for the Crusaders.

Expect the status quo to be retained in the middle of the front row as New Zealand’s hooker contingent is likely to again be made up of Codie Taylor, Dane Coles and Asafo Aumua.

Taylor has arguably been the leading light of Super Rugby Aotearoa this season and may well have done enough to reclaim the national No 2 jersey off of Coles, who has only just returned from injury and has hinted at retiring at the end of this year.

Aumua, meanwhile, hasn’t been sighted since injuring his shoulder against the Crusaders in round two, but has been cleared of any serious damage, so should be free to return to action shortly.

His explosive ball-running power will be a valued asset over the coming years, especially if Coles is serious about hanging up the boots for good.

The return of Brodie Retallick from his 18-month sabbatical in Japan once his commitments with Top League side Kobelco have been completed will be the biggest eye-catcher in the second row cohort.

The 29-year-old hasn’t played for the All Blacks since departing for the Steelers following the 2019 World Cup but has been in fine form for his current side.

According to former All Blacks coach and current Kobelco Steelers director of rugby Wayne Smith, Retallick has been “magnificent” in Japan since shredding down to 117kg in order to cope with the high-tempo style of the Top League.

Foster might want the 81-test international to bulk back up to prepare for the rigours of test rugby, but Kiwi fans can rest easy knowing Retallick hasn’t lost his world-class touch during his sojourn abroad.

Upon his arrival back in New Zealand, Retallick is in line to join a solid nucleus of locks consisting of Crusaders pair Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett, as well as Blues skipper Patrick Tuipulotu.

That quartet stands as the most established second rowers in the country, but there is a tier of promising locks – Tupou Vaa’i, Quinten Strange, Mitchell Dunshea and Pari Pari Parkinson – nipping away at their heels who could be involved at some stage.

As was the case last year, captain Sam Cane and Ardie Savea are non-negotiable selections in the loose forwards, leaving room for five other players to accompany them in the back row.

Of those who were picked up by Foster last year, Highlanders dynamo Shannon Frizell and Blues behemoth Akira Ioane have stood out strongly.

Both players are as devastating as each other with ball in hand and can offer themselves as options at the lineout, while Ioane has continued his outstanding developments from last year as a defensive workhorse.

It’s safe to say, then, that those two lead the charge for the starting blindside flanker spot, while Dalton Papalii’s stature as the next cab off the rank behind Cane and Savea has been reinforced following some awe-inspiring displays for the Blues.

Often overlooked as a credible candidate to start for the national side, the 23-year-old’s talents warrant more than the four test caps he has attained since his international debut in 2018.

The power, energy and commitment the versatile back rower brings to each game he plays in is immense, and you only have to look to last week’s match against the Chiefs, where he registered a round-high 20 tackles, as evidence of his work rate.

One would hope that, with a full test calendar scheduled for this year, Papalii gets the game time he deserves in the black jersey.

His Blues teammate Hoskins Sotutu, meanwhile, is unlikely to miss out as he continues to impress after bursting onto the scene last year, while the resurgence of injury-plagued Chiefs star Luke Jacobson could result in a return to the national camp.

The two-test 24-year-old missed out on inclusion in the All Blacks entirely last year as he battled through the injury woes that cruelly denied him a place at the World Cup, but he has returned with a vengeance in 2021.

Jacobson has been everywhere for the Chiefs this season as he’s dominated proceedings from the No 8 jersey, although he’s equally adept at making a nuisance of himself with and without the ball, as well as at the breakdown, from either flanker position.

That could spell bad news from one-test utility forward Cullen Grace, who has been solid but unspectacular for the Crusaders, while Hurricanes tearaway Du’Plessis Kirifi has some work to do if he’s to surpass the likes of Cane, Savea and Papalii.

Highlanders No 8 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u and Chiefs flanker Lachlan Boshier, meanwhile, are yet to provide the same sort of threats we saw from them last year, and Liam Squire’s bid for an All Blacks comeback has been thwarted by a season-ending injury.

The only certainty to make the cut at halfback, at this stage of the season, is record-breaking Highlanders No 9 Aaron Smith, but who accompanies him as the other two scrumhalves will be an interesting point of debate.

TJ Perenara, who is currently on sabbatical in Japan with NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes, and Chiefs co-captain Brad Weber are the incumbents, but both of their places in the side have come under threat from Smith’s understudy, Folau Fakatava.

The Highlanders’ retention of the 21-year-old, a combative halfback who is uncompromising on defence and possesses a strong running game, was perceived to be just as significant the re-signing of Smith, who also re-committed through until 2023.

That’s how highly-regarded Fakatava is, so it must be tempting to thrust him into the national set-up following a string of quality performances for the Highlanders, both from off the bench and from the starting side.

The question around Fakatava’s inclusion in the All Blacks squad, however, is whose place does he take out of Perenara’s or Weber’s?

Weber has been scintillating for the Waikato side since taking on a leadership role alongside Cane at the beginning of the campaign, while Perenara has been hugely influential in Japan, but is it enough to keep his place in the All Blacks?

You’d have to think so, especially given the he has 69 tests to his name, making him one of the most experienced players in an All Blacks squad that is currently going through something of rebuilding phase.

It would be exceptionally harsh, though, to vacate Weber’s place in the national set-up given how admirably he has stepped up for the Chiefs.

So, unless Foster is willing to expand his squad and take on four halfbacks, Fakatava may have to wait for an injury or a drop in form from one of his rivals before he gets the call-up, or he could come onboard in a non-playing capacity as an apprentice.

Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga, meanwhile, look set to remain unchallenged as New Zealand’s top first-fives, with Highlanders pivot Josh Ioane hardly doing himself any favours by getting himself in trouble with his off-field antics.

His franchise teammate Mitch Hunt could use Ioane’s suspension from the Highlanders as a chance to prove his worth as a test-worthy No 10, while Blues playmaker Otere Black has starred via his ability to make those outside of him shine.

The midfield contingent is bound to look similar to last year’s group, with Anton Lienert-Brown, Jack Goodhue and Rieko Ioane all set for inclusion yet again.

The latter has been particularly dynamic for the Blues thus far this season, but perhaps the biggest improvement has come from Ngani Laumape.

After discounting him from making the All Blacks squad in last year’s edition of this piece, the blockbusting second-five made it known he wasn’t happy with being labelled as “one-dimensional” in his infamous post-match interview after the Hurricanes beat the Blues in Wellington before reiterating that sentiment on the What A Lad podcast.

In that match, he put on a clinic as he flattened and ran around the flailing defensive efforts of Beauden Barrett before putting on another outstanding performance against the Crusaders.

A broken forearm denied him selection in Foster’s initial squad and limited him to just one outing in the black jersey, but he has come back into Super Rugby Aotearoa intent on proving his value as a multi-faceted threat.

Renowned for his hard-nosed running power, Laumape has shown touches of finesse throughout the opening half of the season, setting up tries from cross-field kicks and well-timed passes without losing his ball-carrying prowess.

That should give Foster plenty of reason to propel him back into All Blacks squad as Braydon Ennor continues to work his way back from a ruptured ACL and Peter Umaga-Jensen battles for a starting role at the Hurricanes.

As always, the make-up of the outside backs will hold plenty of intrigue given how well-stocked the All Blacks are in that department.

If any players can be locked in as certainties, then Jordie Barrett, Caleb Clarke, Damian McKenzie and Will Jordan can all be rest assured they should feature, provided there are no major hiccups on the horizon.

Barrett and McKenzie have been particularly outstanding, and the jostle for fullback spot will be very keenly watched given those two, Jordan, Beauden Barrett and David Havili all have cases for inclusion in that position.

As good as he is, Havili may not even make the squad, but not through any fault of his own.

His potential exclusion, unless he makes himself unmissable over the next few weeks, would be a result of the pure depth New Zealand has at fullback, and it may be that his best chance of selection will be as a midfielder, where he starts for the Crusaders.

Given Foster selected six outside backs last year, there should be room for two further players, one of which would have to be Sevu Reece, who continues to standout as one of the Crusaders’ most potent attacking weapons.

He could be joined by his uncapped franchise teammate Leicester Fainga’anuku, who has blossomed into a must-pick since taking the place of the injured George Bridge in the opening rounds of the season.

Standing at 1.88m and 109kg, the 21-year-old can also cover midfield and would give the All Blacks a secondary power wing option behind Caleb Clarke.

Fainga’anuku’s efforts for the Crusaders didn’t go unnoticed last year, as he earned selection in the South Island squad for the North vs South match, and if he can keep up this year’s good form, he might be in line to go one step further.

Keep an eye out for Bridge, though, who has been named to start in this weekend’s clash with the Highlanders in what will be his first competitive outing since last October.

Perform well from there on out, and Foster will have a tough selection dilemma to work through for the remainder of the Super Rugby season.

Possible 35-man All Blacks squad based on first half of Super Rugby Aotearoa

Props: George Bower, Alex Hodgman, Nepo Laulala, Joe Moody, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Ofa Tuungafasi

Hookers: Asafo Aumua, Dane Coles, Codie Taylor

Locks: Scott Barrett, Brodie Retallick, Patrick Tuipulotu, Sam Whitelock

Loose Forwards: Sam Cane (c), Shannon Frizell, Akira Ioane, Luke Jacobson, Dalton Papalii, Ardie Savea, Hoskins Sotutu

Halfbacks: TJ Perenara, Aaron Smith, Brad Weber

First-Fives: Beauden Barrett, Richie Mo’unga

Midfielders: Jack Goodhue, Rieko Ioane, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ngani Laumape

Outside Backs: Jordie Barrett, Caleb Clarke, Leicester Fainga’anuku, Will Jordan, Damian McKenzie, Sevu Reece

Listen to the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:

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Picking an All Blacks squad at the halfway point of Super Rugby Aotearoa

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