Why Leicester Fainga'anuku could be the man to replace Ngani Laumape in the All Blacks midfield
The 28-year-old’s imminent departure robs New Zealand of the country’s best ball-carrying midfield option as the former NRL wing has made a name for himself as a devastating runner with ball in hand since coming to rugby union in 2016.
Few, if any, players across the country have the same ability to crash over the advantage line with such powerful impact as Laumape, meaning All Black head coach Ian Foster has a job on his hands to unearth a suitable replacement in the national side.
The 21-year-old has enjoyed a coming-of-age campaign with the Crusaders this year, starting regularly both on the wing and at centre in the absence of injured All Blacks pair Jack Goodhue and George Bridge.
Standing at 1.88m and 109kg, Fainga’anuku is a real power-based athlete and has showed his physical prowess at various levels of the game in New Zealand, whether it be as a schoolboy, a national U20 representative, in the NPC or in Super Rugby.
It wasn’t until this season, however, that the Tongan-born utility began to really flourish for the Crusaders, and his performance for the Christchurch-based franchise in last weekend’s Super Rugby Aotearoa final illustrated his value as a ball-carrying centre.
Time and time again, Fainga’anuku asked questions of the Chiefs’ defence as he made himself a handful as a crash ball runner, a role that enabled the Crusaders to constantly sneak over the gain line and get his side on the front foot while on attack.
Those traits are not too dissimilar to that of Laumape, and it’s for that reason that Fainga’anuku could stand as a like-for-like replacement for the French-bound powerhouse within the All Blacks squad from this year onwards.
Parsons said Fainga’anuku’s threat as a ball carrier was a key reason why Crusaders fullback Will Jordan scored in the 16th minute of last Saturday’s final.
He noted that although the try was set up by a well-executed grubber kick by second-five David Havili, it was the power running of Fainga’anuku that put the Chiefs on the back foot defensively to thrust Havili and Jordan into a good attacking position.
Ngani Laumape is heading to France and the #AllBlacks are now short of a true power option in the midfield. Unless, of course, they forge ahead with the man who’s had a breakout season with @CrusadersRugby. #SuperRugbyAotearoa #CRUvCHI
— The XV Rugby (@TheXV) May 11, 2021
“Ngani’s probably the best at it [power running], but the other night, when he [Fainga’anuku] hits it, it’s tough to stop,” Parsons told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
“If you look at the try that creates it, it’s that big strong carry and a good ball out the back, quick hands from Richie [Mo’unga] and a grubber and a good chase.
“It all starts from getting in behind from that good, strong carry from Leicester, so you’re right, it’s a big factor. Even if you know it’s coming, it’s still hard to stop.”
Parsons added that Fainga’anuku’s quality isn’t restricted to just the attacking side of his game, as he has shown on occasion that he is capable of stopping big men, like himself, in their tracks when needed.
“The other aspect of it is he’s pretty good at stopping players that are good at getting gain line. Defensively, he’s not afraid of putting his body in front and driving some other big boys backwards.”
Furthermore, Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod that Fainga’anuku may also pique the All Blacks’ interest due to his ability to cover multiple positions, a valued trait within the national squad.
“I think for the All Blacks, we talk around the selection issues, and with Leicester, he’s a winger, but being able to play this kind of footy as a centre, it puts him in that kind of utility role where he could be selected because he can play both positions as well.”
With Goodhue out for the rest of the season with an ACL injury, Fainga’anuku is expected to play a vital role in the remainder of the Crusaders’ season, which continues this Saturday when they host the Brumbies in Christchurch.
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