'Someone's going to miss out': The race to make the All Blacks loose forward trio
As is always the case, much intrigue will surround the selections made by head coach Ian Foster and his colleagues, but particular interest will be centred around certain positional groups where it remains unclear which players will and won’t make the cut.
Some of the positional groups that fit that bill include the front row and the midfield, where it’s a lolly scramble for selection.
Possibly the tightest squeeze, though, will come in the loose forwards, where a number of viable candidates loom as worthy test selections, but not all of them will feature in the next All Blacks squad.
Parsons and Hall both waxed lyrical about the contenders in the running for All Blacks selection in the loose forwards, with the former particularly impressed by the return from injury of Blues blindside flanker Akira Ioane.
The 13-test All Black has exploded back into action for the Super Rugby Pacific table-topping Blues following a lengthy injury layoff, which saw him miss the first two months of the competition.
Back-to-back standout displays against the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels over the last fortnight has thrust Ioane into the limelight, leading Parsons to praise the physicality he has shown in both of those matches.
“He’s really fit, he’ll get more and more minutes under his belt, but the thing I like about him most is his collision areas,” Parsons, a former Blues captain and centurion, told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
“He’s in the thick of it, he’s moving bodies, whether it’s through clean outs or dragging bodies with him through his leg drive, and having the ability to play on the edge.
“I feel like he’s really found his mojo and his balance to his game, and he’s got confidence in that and just goes out there and he’s Akira. He doesn’t try to be something he’s not, and I think that’s when you see the best in him.”
With All Blacks captain Sam Cane and star man Ardie Savea the lead candidates to lock down the No 7 and No 8 roles in New Zealand’s starting back row, Ioane is a strong contender to accompany them on the short side of the scrum at No 6.
However, Hall highlighted the congestion of frontrunners to fill that blindside flanker role, citing injured Highlanders star Shannon Frizell and versatile Crusaders flanker Ethan Blackadder as those competing with Ioane for that spot.
“I just think there’s so much talent at the moment that’s playing consistently well,” Hall, who is currently on tour with the Crusaders in Australia, told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
“We’ve talked around Shannon Frizell and his ability at the Highlanders before he was injured, you’ve got Ethan Blackadder who’s playing 6, 7, 8 at the moment, and then Akira’s come back and had some really good performances coming back from his long-term injury.
“It’s really hard to know where you can go, and, unfortunately, someone’s going to miss out, just due to the fact of how much talent there is and the kind of high level the loose forward trios are playing in the country at the moment.”
Parsons added that Chiefs powerhouse Luke Jacobson can’t be excluded from that list of blindside flanker options, and noted that breakout Chiefs star Pita Gus Sowakula may also come into the reckoning at No 8.
In saying that, Parsons questioned whether Sowakula had maintained his strong early-season form to demand selection from the All Blacks.
“I don’t think we can leave out Luke Jacobson. I think he’s made a good fist No 6. He’s such a strong ball-carrier, great defender,” the former two-test international said.
“He’s another one to put in the mix as well, and, you mentioned Sam Cane, Luke Jacobson and Pita Gus, when they’re humming, the Chiefs are humming, and I think the Chiefs are humming.
“I think you saw that one opportunity that Pita Gus got on the weekend [when he scored against the Brumbies], and he’s just a big body, too easy. Jacobson’s been making similar carries.
“There had been chat around Pita Gus, does he need to find a spark in form again to bring himself into that selection mindset?
“He’s a big man and that does give you a point of difference. There’s big guys, but he’s a big unit and has the ability to flatten people with ball in hand, and ball not in hand.”
Of those rivalling Sowakula for a No 8 spot in the national squad is Hoskins Sotutu, who Parsons described as “an amazing talent”, which Hall agreed with as he acknowledged Sotutu’s skilful contributions to the Blues this season.
“I think Akira’s been coming back into a rich vein of form considering the break that he’s had, but a guy that probably [deserves mention] is Hoskins Sotutu and what he’s really bringing to that team as well,” Hall said.
“His distribution skills, I think you’re seeing off their scrum and lineout maul, his ability as a ball-player, just through his skillset and the amount of times you’ve seen him putting people away through his bridge passes with his passing game, is really great to see.”
Where that leaves Blues captain Dalton Papalii, arguably the most in-form loose forward in New Zealand this year, remains to be seen.
Being national captain, Cane is the probable occupant of the No 7 jersey, which may force Papalii outside of his preferred openside flanker position, but Hall said the 24-year-old is continuing to pressure the All Blacks selectors for a starting role.
“Yes, obviously he [Cane] is the captain, but it’s based around performances. You’re rewarded around your performances,” Hall told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
“Let’s be honest, being a captain, you probably get a little bit more rope, but with the way Dalts is playing, all you’re going to do is put pressure on selectors and coaching staff.”
Parsons added that Papalii’s versatility as a loose forward who can play at blindside, openside and No 8 might play into his hands come selection time, even if that means he is used as a bench player by the All Blacks.
“Dalton just loves playing. He’ll play anywhere. He honestly does, he just loves getting out there in the thick of it. Even if it is a bench role, he can play 6, 7, 8, I believe [he can play there] comfortably.”
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