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Tupou Vaa’i was sent as a lamb to the slaughter against France

By Adam Julian
Tupou Vaa'i of New Zealand looks dejected at full-time following the Rugby World Cup France 2023 Pool A match between France and New Zealand at Stade de France on September 08, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Lucky. It’s only a pool game.

The All Blacks have finally lost a group match at a Rugby World Cup after 31 consecutive wins – outmuscled by France 27-13 in the 2023 opener.


The All Blacks attack was clunky with a cross-kick the only weapon consistently likely to prize open the French defense.

Discipline was poor with the All Blacks losing the penalty count 12-4, the scrum faulted in the first half, and it’s hard to recall a single lineout drive.

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The hosts’ territorial kicking was superior and their work at the breakdown efficient, helped by the late withdrawal of All Blacks captain Sam Cane, and the most baffling All Blacks World Cup selection since Christian Cullen played centre in 1999.

What on earth was lock Tupou Vaa’i doing at blindside flanker?

In his Super Rugby career, Vaa’i has only started three of his 44 games for the Chiefs in the six jersey. All those games were in 2022 with two defeats against the Blues (22-24) and the Crusaders (19-34). The only win was against bottom-placed Moana Pasifika.

In 23 Tests for the All Blacks Vaa’i played 18 minutes as a replacement for openside Dalton Papalii in a dead rubber victory over Australia (38-21) in Perth in 2021. He has recently drifted into the loose forwards with little explanation.

Nine nondescript minutes in the 35-20 success over South Africa on July 15 was followed by a more conspicuous struggle – 41 minutes on the blindside in the record 7-35 defeat against the Springboks on August 25.


Since Jerome Kaino retired in 2017, Liam Squire, Shannon Frizell, Akira Ioane, Ethan Blackadder, Dalton Papalii, Vaea Fifta, Luke Jacobson, and Ardie Savea have played blindside flanker in a Test match.

Such instability. Surely a better pathway forward is to pick actual loose forwards.

Frizell, unfortunately injured, is clearly head of the pack after three storming displays in the 2023 Rugby Championship. Rookie Samipeni Finau appears to have fallen out of favour and what were the All Blacks selectors saying to Luke Jacobson omitting him at the expense of such a green replacement?

Typically, an eight, Jacobson played more games at blindside for the Chiefs in 2022 than what Vaa’i has played in his whole career.


Scott Barrett isn’t an ideal blindside, but he’s played 40 more tests than Vaa’i.

Surely, he was a better pick in an emergency than Vaa’i especially with Brodie Retallick (104 Tests) left on the bench.

Vaa’i is noted as a strong carrier and brings greater height than Jacobson. That can be the only logic for his selection which in this Test was a complete failure. He could have started at lock too but that would have exposed the initial folly of taking too few loose forwards.

As a trio the All Blacks loose forwards were completely outplayed by the French. Vaa’i was a lamb to the slaughter, a fish out of water. A gifted young athlete let down by bad selection. The field day had by Charles Ollivon at the breakdown was a highlight for the French.

Injury to wing Emoni Narawa leaves a space open in the All Blacks roster. Outside back cover appears less essential than loose forward cover.


Ethan Blackadder recovered from his latest injury, and following a strong 93 minutes in two wins for Tasman in the NPC, has been summoned to France.

Will Blackadder drastically improve fortunes after just five matches for the Crusaders in Super Rugby in 2023? His last All Blacks Test was in a loss to Ireland in 2021.

Blackadder, when available, has been an essential cog in the Crusaders juggernaut. Of the 36 matches he’s played for the seven-time reigning champions 28 have been on the blindside with only four defeats suffered.

Blackadder is not an exceptional lineout jumper, but he will add considerable zeal at the breakdown. He is a prolific tacker, robust on his feet, and an assertive cleaner. His carrying and distribution are more nuanced than Vaa’i and he’s work rate in tight is higher than Papalii and Jacobson.

The All Blacks don’t have the raw power of South Africa, France, or Ireland. A loose forward trio of Blackadder, Papalii and Ardie Savea lends itself to a more savaging, quicker style of play which could spare us of the incessant kicking.

What if Blackadder succumbs to injury again? Brad Shields last played for England in 2019. He’s been immense for the Wellington Lions in the NPC. You could do a lot worse than a seasoned campaigner like Shields right now.


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