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The Blues and Highlanders stars who could become All Blacks bolters after this weekend's final

By Sam Smith
Photos / Photosport

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Much of this week’s media attention has been focused towards the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final, but there is an underlying narrative surrounding next Monday’s All Blacks squad announcement.

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While three of New Zealand’s five Super Rugby sides won’t be able to show off their talent for the rest of the year, this Saturday presents the last chance for All Blacks hopefuls from the Blues and Highlanders to push their case for inclusion in Ian Foster’s side.

Perform well on Super Rugby’s grandest stage at Eden Park this weekend, and fringe All Blacks players could well hear their names read aloud when Foster’s first squad of 2021 is announced two days after the final.

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Which players Foster has or hasn’t pencilled in remains unclear, but there are a number of players competing in the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final who could lock themselves into the squad with a starring performance in three days’ time.

According to former All Blacks hooker James Parsons, Blues lock Gerard Cowley-Tuioti is among those who could come into consideration if he shines in what is thought to be his final appearance for the franchise this weekend.

“One guy that’s maybe out there but potentially could be on the radar if there’s an injury is Gerard Cowley-Tuioti,” Parsons told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.

“I just think he’s really good with ball in hand and he’s really good defensively. He’s got that, but he’s a student of the game. His preparation, he runs the Blues’ defence and attack, lineouts with Patty [Patrick Tuipulotu], so he knows that side of his game.

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“He’s really bone-deep in his prep, which I really like, and that’s what you need at that next standard. He’s had a great season. His game is just the best I’ve ever seen it. I don’t want to lose him for Harbour, but could potentially do so.”

Ex-Highlanders lock Joe Wheeler agreed with Parons’ comments as he expressed disbelief over Cowley-Tuioti’s omission from the North Island squad for last year’s North vs South clash.

“I was a huge fan of his last year and I think he’s put in two consecutive, consistent seasons,” Wheeler told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.

“The interesting thing for me was he was probably one of our form locks last season in Super Rugby Aotearoa but missed, somehow, the North Island selection, which I still can’t understand how he missed out on that selection.

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“He was probably one of the best locks in the country at that stage, so that was interesting for me. I took that as where they stand that he’s a little bit too old for that next World Cup cycle.

“If guys are good enough now and they’re playing at that highest tier and at a world-class level, then you should pick them, regardless of position, regardless of whether you see them being able to make the next World Cup.

“I think that might be counting against him, but I’ve loved his presence in that Blues side, now running lineouts with Patty and doing a fantastic job, and obviously what you alluded to with their defence, their defensive lineout being the best in the competition this year.”

Parsons also highlighted Blues stars such as Alex Hodgman, Akira Ioane and Tom Robinson as other prospects who could break their way into the All Blacks.

The ex-Blues captain added that key Highlanders players Jona Nareki, Josh Ioane and Mitch Hunt may also be in the running as potential backup options should they impress in the final.

Wheeler made particular note of Nareki, who has caught the eye this year with an array of electric performances on the wing for the Highlanders.

“I know traditionally the All Blacks have gone for that big, bruising that always wins gainline, but the thing I love about Jona Nareki is he’s got the complete skill set,” Wheeler said.

“For a winger, obviously not the biggest guy, but he plays big. He had that uncanny ability to always beat the first defender. He’s got a great left foot, he turns up in areas a lot of other left wingers wouldn’t turn up in as second receiver.

“He has the ability to throw the wide ball, he has a huge work rate, and I’d just about say he’s one of the best defensive wings in New Zealand at the moment.

“He has a great ability to shut down time and space to paint a picture that he’s got everything covered, but then also pull back when he doesn’t to sell two different pictures. If teams think they can skip pass him, he has an uncanny ability of taking those intercepts.

“I think he’s a guy, even though he’s small in stature, the way he plays, he plays so big and he’s so important to what this Highlanders team does.”

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

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The Blues and Highlanders stars who could become All Blacks bolters after this weekend's final

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