For All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen, the make-up of his 31-man squad for the sport’s global showpiece event in Japan will, for the most part, be solidified.
Most players who have featured frequently for the national side this year should feel a degree of confidence that they will take part in the tournament in 10 months’ time, which means there should be little room for alteration in terms of personnel at this late stage of this current World Cup cycle.
However, as proven by the All Blacks in the last World Cup cycle, there is always room for a few late applications in the final few months leading into the tournament.
Nehe Milner-Skudder headlined a trio of rookies – which included Waisake Naholo and Codie Taylor – that were named in Hansen’s 2015 World Cup squad following a series of spell-binding performances for the Hurricanes throughout his debut Super Rugby season.
After identifying Chiefs rookie Etene Nanai-Seturo and Crusaders fullback Will Jordan as a pair of potential bolters earlier in the week, our final pick in the series comes from the Highlanders forward pack in the form of Number Eight Marino Mikaele-Tu’u.
A former New Zealand Schools and national under-20 representative, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u has come through the ranks to prove himself to be a tantalising prospect for the future.
Standing at 1.91m and 111kg, the 21-year-old was in outstanding form in his third season with Hawke’s Bay in 2018, constantly proving himself to be a massive ball-carrying threat due to his ruthlessness and directness in attack.
This is portrayed in offensive statistics in the Mitre 10 Cup, which saw him beat 21 defenders (fourth-best for No. 8’s in the competition), carry for over 350 metres (fourth- best), and make at least one clean break per match (second-best) this year.
It was that hustle that saw him come into the Highlanders’ squad as injury cover in the 2018 Super Rugby campaign, and after impressing in five outings, he has deservedly been handed a full-time spot on the franchise’s 2019 roster.
In a squad that already features five All Blacks in their loose forward stocks, there is arguably no better team in the country to help foster Mikaele-Tu’u’s obvious talent, but that could just as easily hinder his chances to stake a claim for higher honours.
Unfortunately. Mikaele-Tu’u may have a hard time dislodging seven-test All Black Luke Whitelock from his role as starting No. 8 at the Highlanders.
Whitelock’s defensive work rate and leadership capacity within coach Aaron Mauger’s squad is highly valued, and that alone presents a lofty hurdle for Mikaele-Tu’u to overcome.
However, as teammate and fellow loose forward Shannon Frizell proved against the Blues earlier this year, all Mikaele-Tu’u needs is one barnstorming display to catapult himself into All Blacks consideration.
Those types of performances were churned out by Mikaele-Tu’u on a regular basis for Hawke’s Bay, and if he can deliver the same sort of impact for the Highlanders, then he might well come into the national selector’s plans as the No. 8 back-up to skipper Kieran Read that they have been longing for.
Mikaele-Tu’u’s explosive offensive capability is something that Read has been lacking in recent times – look no further than the All Blacks’ loss to Ireland a fortnight ago.
Despite all the leadership and defensive prosperity that the national captain brings to the table, that match proved the All Blacks need a threatening ball-carrier from No. 8.
Neither Read – nor Whitelock, his current back-up – has shown that in 2018, and while long- term development star Akira Ioane has continually shown that he can provide that sort of ball-carrying danger that the national selectors will be craving for, there are still plenty of amendments that need to be made in other areas of his game before he can receive a promotion.
That leaves the door ajar for Mikaele-Tu’u to swoop in and claim a place in next year’s World Cup squad as an attacking No. 8 behind the comparably conservative Read.
In order for him to do that, though, he needs to overtake Whitelock in the Highlanders’ starting team.
Just one brilliant appearance could be enough to do the job, but it could just as easily be too much of an ask for Mikaele-Tu’u to conquer, leaving the 2023 World Cup a more likely possibility.
Learn more about some of the Japanese cities hosting World Cup matches next year with our exclusive city guides:
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