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Rampant Blues brothers take further steps towards All Blacks selection

By Tom Vinicombe
Caleb Clarke. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

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Three key figures for the Blues did their All Blacks chances no harm in their mammoth 71-28 win over the Rebels on Friday night.

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Although the Blues found themselves 14 points down on the scoresheet early in the match, as soon as they were able to start stringing a few phases together they became impossible to defend against, with backs carrying like forwards and forwards running like backs to tear the Rebels apart.

While there were strong performances across the park, the work done by the likes of Akira Ioane, Roger Tuiavasa-Sheck and Caleb Clarke would have undoubtedly boosted their national standing in some heavily congested positions.

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Ioane made his return to the field against the Western Force last weekend after spending the first 10 rounds of the competition sidelined with a lisfranc foot injury.

In just his second game of the year, Ioane was a man possessed and touched down for the Blues’ first two scores of the night. Had he not been substituted towards the end of the third quarter, it would not have surprised to see him match brother Rieko’s three-try haul.

“He obviously needs minutes and he was able to get another good hit out,” coach Leon MacDonald said after the match. “I thought his involvements probably were nearly double from last week and he’s looking hungry and excited out there.”

Ioane finished the game with 100 metres to his name – second only to younger brother and outside centre Rieko, who was unsurprised at how quickly Akira has flown out of the blocks since returning to the field.

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“He’s a player that was hungry,” Rieko said. “He missed out those first [10] games and to see the team going the way that we were while he was away just made him hungrier.

“The preparations for him over the last couple of weeks have been good so hopefully he just keeps that going and as a squad, the individuals within that squad feel like we’re building nicely.”

Ioane is competing with the likes of Ethan Blackadder, Shannon Frizell, Luke Jacobson and possibly Blues captain Dalton Papalii and regular lock Tupou Vaa’i to wear the All Blacks No 6 jersey later this season.

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In the backline, former league star Tuivasa-Sheck was once again a pillar of defence for the Blues but is still waiting to show off his trademark silky step on the regular.

Tuivasa-Sheck made eight tackles on Friday evening – second only to hooker Kurt Eklund on the Blues side of the field – and generally looked composed and controlled whenever given chances to feed his outside men, despite only playing in his sixth game of union since switching codes.

“It’s been a tough transition for him,” Ioane said of his midfield partner. “He didn’t get the [NPC] experience but he’s a player that’s gone about his work [and improving in] leaps and bounds every single week.

“Although it’s not the space he got as a fullback [in league], us midfield try and pride ourselves on the gritty work. So he’s doing those hard carries, he’s doing the hard cleans and tackling like a soldier out there. I’m stoked for him and I know the more time we get together, it’s only going to be better for the both of us. Definitely happy with how he’s progressing.”

MacDonald was equally impressed with the gains that Tuivasa-Sheck as made in the limited time he’s had on the field.

“He’s looking like a rugby player, isn’t he?” MacDonald said following the match. “He looks like he belongs out there, he fits in well. He’s connected in the D-line now, he’s communicating well, he’s starting to get a feel for the game and where the ball’s flowing.

“When the outside backs are scoring tries, your midfield are genuinely part of either seeing that space or executing the skill to get it to space and he’s starting to do that really well as well.”

 

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The All Blacks used David Havili and Quinn Tupaea at second five last season but Tuivasa-Sheck looms as a potential left-field option for the selectors in 2022. While he may not be setting the world alight just yet, he’s certainly maintaining some tidy form while showing the odd glimpse of brilliance.

One of the men that’s benefiting from the work of the Blues midfielders is the rejuvenated Caleb Clarke, who spent much of last year with the New Zealand national sevens side.

Having spent a bit of time on the sidelines due to a three-week suspension earlier this season, the sizeable left winger is now starting to replicate his form from earlier in the season – the kind of form that first saw him called up to the All Blacks in 2020.

“He was over-excited last week after his ‘holiday’ and I thought tonight he just showed the power and the pace that he possesses, but also work rate,” MacDonald said. “I think his work rate is phenomenal at the moment, as was everybody’s. If there’s one thing you can hang your hat on is when we all work really, really hard, we get the rewards and I thought everybody did tonight.”

“He’s an angry man when he gets in a mood like that,” added Ioane. “It’s good to see him running like that.”

Clarke’s size could make him a much-needed weapon on the left flank for the All Blacks this season but he’ll have to get his nose ahead of the likes of George Bridge and Sevu Reece in the eyes of the selectors if he’s to earn a recall to the national set-up.

The Blues’ next challenge comes against the Reds at Eden Park next Saturday.

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