What's Ian Foster to do with Sam Cane, Ardie Savea and Dalton Papalii?
Two years into Ian Foster’s reign as head coach of the national side, however, the question still remains how best to utilise the two senior loose forwards.
It was a conundrum that Foster’s predecessor, Steve Hansen, was never really able to get to the bottom of.
Heading into the 2019 World Cup, Hansen seemingly settled on running Savea and Cane in tandem flanker roles, with the former setting up on the blindside and the latter packing down on the openside. With Kieran Read the first-choice number 8, it was the only strategy that allowed both players to take the field in the starting line-up.
However, come the fateful semi-final clash with England, that tactic was thrown out the window and Cane was dropped to the bench with second-rower Scott Barrett tasked with wearing the No 6 jersey in order to combat England’s lineout.
The plan backfired, New Zealand suffered a 19-7 defeat and the All Blacks were once again left to rue playing a man out of position in one of the biggest games of the four-year calendar.
Two years later, and it’s hard to gauge whether Foster – an assistant coach with the All Blacks in 2019 – is any wiser how to best utilise his cattle at this stage in his tenure.
With Read retiring from the international game following the World Cup, Savea has seemingly found a new home for himself at the back of the scrum; in the 12 tests that Savea has played over the past two seasons, nine of those were in the No 8 jersey.
Cane, meanwhile, hasn’t had quite as busy a two-year period thanks to the injury he sustained earlier this season that curtailed much of his All Blacks campaign.
Still, throughout 2020, Cane was regularly employed on the openside flank with Savea at number 8, and that’s the approach that was also used in the final game of this year’s test season against France.
"The thing is that no All Black really presented a compelling case this year, which was reflected in World Rugby’s own award nominees."
– Hamish Bidwell ahead of New Zealand Rugby's annual award night. https://t.co/aPHFQHYR54
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 7, 2021
Following last year’s campaign, questions would have rightfully been asked whether the number 8 role was actually the best for Savea, or whether he was being shifted to accommodate for Cane, the new All Blacks captain.
With Cane out of the picture for much of this year, however, Foster and his selectors didn’t shift Savea onto the openside flank, instead taking the opportunity to hand ample minutes to Dalton Papalii in the No 7 jersey.
Papalii was by many accounts one of the All Blacks’ most consistent players throughout 2021 and while Foster has ostensibly settled on how to best use Cane and Savea in tandem, he now has a new problem on his hands – where does Papalii fit into things moving forward? Will the 24-year-old be relegated to the reserves, or not even make the match-day squad next year?
Foster has noted that Papalii could fit into the team on the blindside flank, where he played much of his early professional rugby.
“If you look as his key strength, it’s probably his ability in the tackle and to be really forceful and dominant in that space,” Foster told Stuff last month.
“From our perspective, he would probably leave us with a shorter loose forward trio than you would potentially want, but he’s also pretty competent at lineout time. So the answer is yes. Long term I’d have no issues playing him [at blindside flanker].”
With Papalii, Cane and Savea all first and foremost openside flankers, would it really be feasible for the trio to line up together?
Perhaps if the likes of Akira Ioane, Luke Jacobson and Ethan Blackadder weren’t firing then the combination might make sense, but a specialist may be better employed on the blindside flank, if the option is available.
With the All Blacks calling upon a glut of loose forwards this year, the biggest challenge for Foster in 2022 could be narrowing down his selections and then determining once and for all who the three key men are to run out in the loose forwards moving forward.
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