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

By Alex McLeod
(Photos by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

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After nine weeks of action, we have reached the halfway point in the inaugural edition of Super Rugby Pacific.

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With six weeks of cross-border fixtures, followed by three weeks of playoffs, left to play in the competition, there has been plenty to make of Super Rugby’s revamped iteration of itself.

Maybe the most intriguing aspect of the competition, though, is the underlying narrative of how the individual performances of New Zealand’s Super Rugby Pacific stars will impact the selection of the All Blacks squad for their July test series against Ireland.

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What the All Blacks squad could look like halfway through Super Rugby Pacific | Aoteaora Rugby Pod
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What the All Blacks squad could look like halfway through Super Rugby Pacific | Aoteaora Rugby Pod

Following a year where they produced their worst test campaign in more than a decade, one that ended in back-to-back defeats to Ireland and France, the All Blacks have never been under more pressure during Ian Foster’s reign as head coach.

That scrutiny will only be intensified when the Irish arrive on Kiwi shores in three months’ time given it was Andy Farrell’s side that completely dismantled the All Blacks to notch their third win over New Zealand in five years last November.

France did the same in Paris – their first win over New Zealand in their capital in nearly half a century – a week later to compound Foster’s underwhelming tenure at the helm of the All Blacks following the failed 2019 World Cup campaign.

Under his guidance, the All Blacks have also fallen short against the Wallabies, Los Pumas and Springboks, leaving them in an equal-record lowest World Rugby ranking of third place less than 18 months out from next year’s World Cup.

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With that in mind, the upcoming series against Ireland provides Foster and the All Blacks with their first opportunity to stop the rot and build towards something more fruitful as they enter the second half of the current World Cup cycle.

Therefore, the importance of Foster’s selections in his next All Blacks squad cannot be understated, meaning the performances of New Zealand’s elite in Super Rugby Pacific will be, and have been, closely monitored.

Of those who stand to benefit from their efforts in the opening half of the competition, Blues prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi looms as the leading candidate to occupy a place in Foster’s front row.

An explosive and versatile player who can bookend both sides of the scrum, Tu’ungafasi’s rich vein of form was key to his side’s success against the Crusaders last weekend.

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The 30-year-old’s power in his ball-carrying and tackling has long been a hallmark of his game, and it were those attributes that made him New Zealand’s best tighthead prop in Foster’s first year in charge of the All Blacks in 2020.

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Suspension and injuries dented his progress last year, though, as he managed only a handful of appearances for the Blues and All Blacks, many of which were cameo appearances from the bench.

However, after coming into this season with a clean bill of health, Tu’ungafasi’s destructive nature has come into full effect, making him arguably the only certainty in a cohort of props where there are numerous spots up for grabs.

Chief among the concerns from last year’s losses was the apparent ground New Zealand had lost to the likes of South Africa, Ireland and France in tight five.

The physicality and ball skills of the big men from the Springboks, Irish and Les Bleus was far superior to that of the All Blacks, with players like Uini Atonio and Tadhg Furlong making a mockery of their Kiwi counterparts.

As such, the remainder of the props may be picked on how dynamic they are around the park, something the All Blacks have asked of their big men ever since they dropped Owen Franks in favour of Atu Moli at the 2019 World Cup.

On that basis, Nepo Laulala may be a high-profile casualty given his lack of dynamism compared to other props around New Zealand.

As exemplified last week, it’s hard to argue that Laulala’s ball-carrying and work rate are at the same level of others such as Joe Moody, Ethan de Groot and Alex Hodgman, all of whom should be the frontrunners for the three loosehead prop spots.

Their inclusions would force the exclusion of Karl Tu’inukuafe, who is slowly returning from major back surgery, although the full extent of the injuries sustained by Moody and Hodgman during the Blues-Crusaders clash is yet to be revealed.

Highlanders prop Jermaine Ainsley may be the bolter pick to replace Laulala as one of the squad’s three tighthead props.

The New Zealand-born three-test Wallabies prop is available to play for the All Blacks under World Rugby’s new eligibility laws and offers evasive footwork that few other props in the country can match.

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Combined with his solid set piece work and previous international experience, Ainsley has much to like about him and could join Tu’ungafasi and one of either Tyrel Lomax, Angus Ta’avao and George Bower in the group of tightheads.

While Bower is primarily a loosehead for the Crusaders, he can play on both sides of the scrum, but it might be that Lomax is the preferred option after proving his worth as someone who carries well and is effective at the breakdown for the Hurricanes.

Chiefs trio Moli, Aidan Ross and Ollie Norris, as well as Crusaders pair Fletcher Newell and Tamaiti Williams, may come into consideration, but it’s difficult to envisage there being enough room for any of that quintet.

Similarly, there is little certainty regarding the selection of the All Blacks hookers, with nine-test rake Samisoni Taukei’aho the lead candidate based on his compelling showings for the Chiefs.

With his vast experience and leadership qualities, Codie Taylor is also highly likely to feature, although he hasn’t yet delivered a statement display for the Crusaders despite needing to do so after falling away badly for the All Blacks late last year.

New Zealand’s most experienced hooker, Dane Coles, is yet to even take to the field this year as he enjoys a prolonged break from the game, while Asafo Aumua’s three-week suspension hardly does his selection chances any good.

The Hurricanes duo might have their places in the national squad come under threat from Blues star Kurt Eklund, the uncapped 30-year-old who is New Zealand’s leading try-scorer in Super Rugby Pacific.

A beneficiary of rugby’s latest trend of rolling maul tries, Eklund has impressed since bursting onto the scene with the Blues two years ago, as reflected by his inclusion in the North Island and Maori All Blacks squads in 2020 and 2021.

However, Eklund’s lack of international experience at his age may count against his chances of a test debut, as it did for ex-Highlanders co-captain Ash Dixon.

That should enable either Coles or Aumua to keep their place, and it’s hard to see the former being dropped due to his high standing in the All Blacks squad, which has been illustrated by the extensive leave afforded to him by New Zealand Rugby.

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As has been the case for quite some time now, the trio of Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett are relatively set in stone as automatic picks at lock.

All three should both earn selection regardless of their respective injury and disciplinary concerns, so it’s who joins them as the fourth option in the second row that brings with it the most speculation.

Foster essentially has three options in choose from in Chiefs youngsters Tupou Vaa’i and Josh Lord, as well as the experienced Patrick Tuipulotu, whose decision to take a sabbatical in Japan’s League One may count against him come selection time.

The lack of physicality Tuipulotu will have encountered while playing for Toyota Verblitz, and the impressive form of both Vaa’i and Lord, could leave the former Blues skipper on the outer for the Ireland series.

If required to pick between the Chiefs duo, Foster may be inclined to side with the more experienced and versatile Vaa’i, whose newfound ability to play at blindside flanker must be attractive to the All Blacks selectors.

Vaa’i’s selection as a lock/blindside flanker would likely eliminate occasional Blues captain Tom Robinson from a crowded loose forward contingent, where only All Blacks captain Sam Cane and Ardie Savea are non-negotiable inclusions.

Blues skipper Dalton Papalii may have earned the right to be considered as valuable as Cane and Savea after his immense performances in Super Rugby Pacific, especially in the wake of what was probably a career-best display against the Crusaders.

It might be that those three are viewed as the preferred starting loose forward trio for the All Blacks when the international season kicks-off, which translates to their places in the national squad being assured.

Who supports them deeper down in Foster’s depth chart is up for debate, as Ethan Blackadder, Shannon Frizell, Akira Ioane, Luke Jacobson, Hoskins Sotutu, Pita Gus Sowakula, Cullen Grace, Tom Christie and Robinson would all be justifiable additions.

It’s likely only three or four of those players will be selected alongside Cane, Savea and Papalii, with Sowakula the most in-form of them all.

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The uncapped Fijian’s performances have sparked nationwide murmurings of a maiden All Blacks call-up following some superb outings in which he’s provided the Chiefs with some highlight-worthy touches.

Sowakula’s blend of physical brutality and deft skillset would be highly-valued by the All Blacks, but the question Foster must ask himself is whether he’s willing to bring the 27-year-old newbie onboard at the expense of someone he’s already invested in at this point of the World Cup cycle.

If so, then Hoskins Sotutu or Cullen Grace may bear the brunt of the squeeze in the loose forward department, which would be tough on them considering the form they have found themselves in.

However, Grace’s versatility across the back row, and at lock, may be enough to earn him a place in the squad as a blindside flanker.

There, he would face competition from four players who featured for the All Blacks last year in the form of Blackadder, Frizell, Jacobson and Ioane, who is yet to play this year due to a foot injury.

Of that quartet, Frizell was the least favoured by Foster as he missed a fair chunk of the test campaign due to legal issues.

Even then, in spite of his typically standout showings for the Highlanders, Frizell’s inability to replicate that dominance internationally over the past few seasons, as well as his current knee injury, may result in his exclusion from Foster’s squad.

That would leave Blackadder, Ioane, Grace and Jacobson vying for two spots, and based on current form, the latter two might have the inside running, although it would be unwise to rule Ioane out of the race when he eventually returns to action.

Aaron Smith remains the premier halfback in the country, even if he remains out of form at the underperforming Highlanders.

Behind him, Blues star Finlay Christie and Chiefs co-captain Brad Weber have proven themselves to be New Zealand’s top halfbacks thus far this year, and both are suited to the style in which the All Blacks play.

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Their selections would leave no room for TJ Perenara, while Smith’s understudy at the Highlanders, Folau Fakatava, is a wildcard option given his potential, but he is yet to find top form and is shrouded by eligibility uncertainty.

Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga, meanwhile, continue to provide the benchmark for aspiring first-fives across New Zealand, and there is still some daylight between them and the chasing pack of contenders.

In saying that, the performances of Bryn Gatland, Josh Ioane, Mitch Hunt and Stephen Perofeta will have been reassuring for Foster if either of his first-choice playmakers were to become unavailable.

Of all the midfielders in the country, Rieko Ioane stands as the only certainty to make the cut in a positional area that was contentious focal point for the All Blacks by the end of last year.

Anton Lienert-Brown would have joined Ioane in Foster’s squad were it not for a serious shoulder injury, leaving a host of candidates chasing three available spots.

David Havili, Quinn Tupaea and Braydon Ennor were the other three players who featured in last year’s All Blacks midfield, but only Tupaea, with his potential and comparative physical prowess, would warrant inclusion for a second year running.

Jack Goodhue’s long-awaited return from injury could see him slot back into the All Blacks squad as the experienced head in Lienert-Brown’s absence, although he is yet to take to the field to validate such a decision.

Nevertheless, Foster might look to bank on Goodhue’s experience in a green midfield contingent that should feature uncapped Crusaders starlet Leicester Fainga’anuku, whose versatility and continuation of last year’s good form deserves reward.

As much as he’s impressed in the limited game time he’s had since joining rugby union from the NRL, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck might still need the second half of the season to push his case for All Blacks selection after a decent injury lay-off.

Alex Nankivell and the Umaga-Jensen twins, Peter and Thomas, linger as outside chances for selection, while Jordie Barrett’s recent flirtation with the No 12 jersey at the Hurricanes could yet be mirrored in the test arena.

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If not, Barrett should be the frontline fullback for the All Blacks in an outside back cohort that will also include Will Jordan and Caleb Clarke.

Outside of those three, Sevu Reece is the lead candidate to occupy one of the remaining places in the squad, but the same can’t be said of Damian McKenzie, who is currently playing for Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath in Japan.

Unlike Tuipulotu, McKenzie’s League One sojourn isn’t part of a sabbatical deal with New Zealand Rugby, meaning he won’t be eligible to play for the All Blacks until he returns to Kiwi shores, which probably won’t be until this year’s NPC.

George Bridge is equally unlikely to feature after underwhelming for the Crusaders and All Blacks, leaving one or two berths in the back three for the Irish series.

Julian Savea and Mark Telea are probably the two players best placed to challenge for those spots, while Etene Nanai-Seturo is beginning to catch the eye for the Chiefs.

Savea is possibly the pick of the trio after thriving with a more well-rounded game since his return to New Zealand from France.

With all this in mind, though, there is still nine weeks to play in Super Rugby Pacific, giving Foster plenty of time to be swayed.

Possible 33-man All Blacks squad based on first half of Super Rugby Pacific

Props: Jermaine Ainsley, Ethan de Groot, Alex Hodgman, Tyrel Lomax, Joe Moody, Ofa Tu’ungafasi

Hookers: Dane Coles, Codie Taylor, Samisoni Taukei’aho

Locks: Scott Barrett, Brodie Retallick, Tupou Vaa’i, Sam Whitelock

Loose Forwards: Sam Cane (c), Cullen Grace, Luke Jacobson, Dalton Papalii, Ardie Savea, Pita Gus Sowakula

Halfbacks: Finlay Christie, Aaron Smith, Brad Weber

First-Fives: Beauden Barrett, Richie Mo’unga

Midfielders: Leicester Fainga’anuku, Jack Goodhue, Rieko Ioane, Quinn Tupaea

Outside Backs: Jordie Barrett, Caleb Clarke, Will Jordan, Julian Savea, Sevu Reece

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