The special All Blacks lock who could be New Zealand's answer at No 6
By necessity or not, Tupou Vaa’i’s move to blindside flanker opens up intriguing possibilities for the national team.
Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan said it was a temporary measure and not one made in consultation with the All Blacks selectors.
All the same, it might be a move that benefits Ian Foster and company in time.
There are a few All Blacks spots up for grabs in the next couple of years, notably in the pack.
Prop is wide open for anyone to take, with all four spots in the rotation hardly set in stone after last year’s European tour.
Ardie Savea will play somewhere in the loose trio, but the other two positions are available as well.
Lock’s less of a contest. Retallick and Sam Whitelock will surely be given every chance to still be starting come the 2023 Rugby World Cup, backed by a useful supporting cast of Scott Barrett, Patrick Tuipulotu and Lord among others.
Vaa’i has to be included somewhere and it may be as part of the loose forward mix.
I really admire Luke Jacobson and Ethan Blackadder. They’re not big blokes, but their effort and enthusiasm are excellent.
Against modest international opponents, they’re a very good option. But I retain reservations about their ability to truly mix it in elite company.
The same for Akira Ioane and Shannon Frizell. These guys are big and both can be damaging but, what the All Blacks gain in bulk, they potentially lose in work rate with them.
Size is an issue here. Savea is a certain starter and you assume, fitness permitting, that the selectors will want Sam Cane in the trio too.
For all their immense qualities, neither man is a giant and we have to accept that the breakdown is an area where teams will look to exploit that. We need a bruiser in there and someone with some fear factor.
Unfortunately, Jerome Kaino isn’t going to be walking through that door anytime soon.
Vaa’i isn’t, as yet, a bruiser. He’s brave and athletic, but no battering ram.
Ball runners don’t avoid his vicinity, for fear of having their ribs broken.
That said, Vaa’i added desperately needed impetus to a pretty passive pack, in the All Blacks’ most-recent outing.
France, who had the luxury of replacing giants with giants at Stade de France in November, were just too big and too strong up front for our boys. Yes, old man Dane Coles did his absolute best at hooker, but too many blokes couldn’t compete.
Ioane would be one of those, as part of a performance that should be enough to convince the selectors that he might never become the player that they’d like him to be.
I’m not sold on Vaa’i at 6; how could I be? This move is only in its infancy.
But if we look at the other available options, and take into consideration the comparative depth at lock, Vaa’i definitely has some appeal there.
The way the All Blacks are seeking to skin the cat right now, hasn’t really worked. Vaa’i, with his ball skills, evasiveness and energy, offers a different way of doing things. Not only that, he never seems awed by the occasion or opponent that confronts him.
That’s not something you’d say about every blindside in the All Blacks’ mix.
Vaa’i is perhaps more Vaea Fifita than Kaino for the time being, but the potential to become a special player is undoubtedly there.
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