What Ethan Blackadder added to a talented loose forwards trio
Whilst there was no secret family formula passed down to Ethan Blackadder ahead of his All Blacks debut against Tonga on Saturday night, the “good luck” message he did receive was perhaps all that he needed.
In a game that coincidentally was to exactly mirror his father Todd’s first test as All Blacks captain, Ethan Blackadder put in a performance built on hard graft and physicality in his half hour cameo off the bench.
Yet Ethan’s journey towards wearing the famous black jersey as was once worn by his dad, was by no means simple. After making his debut for Tasman in 2016 and for the Crusaders in 2018, three injury-hampered seasons with the Christchurch-based franchise followed. At long last, 2021 seemed finally to be Blackadder’s year as he excelled in the loose as part of Scott Robertson’s championship-winning side.
Crucially, consistent appearances allowed for the 26-year-old to string together a series of impressive performances, whilst also granting Robertson the ability to vary how and where Blackadder’s distinct attributes were to be applied. Utilised throughout the season primarily as a six, in his ten Super Rugby appearances in 2021, Blackadder also made starts at both No. 8 and on the openside flank – the latter of which being the position that Ian Foster deployed him in against the ‘Ikale Tahi on Saturday night.
Of course, prior to selecting their 36-man squad, Head Coach Foster and Assistant Head Coach John Plumtree had both discussed their desire for versatility among their loose forward picks. Commenting on how such a plan had played out with regards to Blackadder post-match, Foster seemed content with the outcome.
“We’re pretty pleased,” Foster said. “When he [Ethan] did play seven during the year, we liked what we saw and so when we named the squad, we were pretty clear in that we see him as a seven option for us. So, we’ll keep experimenting there.”
Blackadder’s ability to cover seemingly every blade of grass on the paddock, his aggressiveness in defence and willingness to put in the grunt work was by no means deterred by switching sides of the scrum. Indeed, the young man himself saw only positives coming from selection with different numbers on his back.
“For myself, it doesn’t really matter what side of the scrum I’m on, I enjoy playing it,” said Blackadder. “[They’re] different skill sets, different roles, so if I have to switch it keeps me sharp and adds versatility.”
Foster too appeared pleased with Blackadder’s attitude and willingness to jump straight into the action whilst not being phased by talk of competition among a seriously talented loose forwards contingent.
“I thought Ethan came on and just brought a massive work rate,” said Foster, “He chucked himself at everything.”
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From a wider perspective, Blackadder’s performance was matched well by his teammates in the loose forwards, with Plumtree identifying the excellent work of the three starters on the night – Dalton Papalii, Luke Jacobson and Akira Ioane.
“I thought all three loosies were excellent,” said Plumtree. “They had a lot of momentum so they were able to get into the game with the skills that they’ve got and I think we saw that from Ioane on the edge of the park and saw it from Luke Jacobson around the middle of the field. We’re pleased that they were able to have an influence on the game around that area but there’s always little things they’ll want to work on.”
Papalii grabbed a brace, whilst Jacobson marked his return to the squad with a try and the second most tackles on the night. Specifically, on Ioane, Foster was buoyed by the 26-year-olds work in camp to build upon his in-game accuracy.
“He’s working hard on his involvements to make sure that we get the numbers out of him in terms of game load,” said Foster. “I thought defensively he looked good. We saw his influence with the ball, particularly when he’s a little bit wider and I think if we can get that accuracy with him…then we’re starting to get the real gains out of him, but there was good movement.”
It would seem therefore, that selection among the loose forwards heading into this week’s clash with Fiji in Dunedin could be interesting, especially given the injury doubts of Papalii and Ardie Savea.
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