If you’ve watched the Highlanders this season, you’ll have been subjected to arguably the most inconsistent team in Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021.
For every stupendous win against title frontrunners such as the Crusaders, Chiefs and Blues, there have also been deflating defeats, as was seen against the Hurricanes last month and at Eden Park a fortnight beforehand.
Still, the Dunedin-based franchise remain an outside chance at making the competition’s grand final on May 8, provided they can pick up a revenge victory over the Hurricanes next Friday and that a slew of other results fall in their favour.
If the Highlanders are to gather some kind of consistency and defy their high-paying odds to reach the all-Kiwi finale, the influence of star loose forward Shannon Frizell will be crucial to their fortunes.
In a campaign that has seen the stuttering southerners often take one step forward and then two steps backwards, Frizell has been a fine example in constantly churning out excellent performance after excellent performance.
The blockbusting nature of the Tongan-born flanker’s talents has been well-known ever since he first burst onto the Super Rugby scene with an epic hat-trick of tries against the Blues in his debut season three years ago.
That sole outing ultimately led to a shock All Blacks call-up that same year, but his place in the national camp has never really been fully solidified amid a highly-competitive pool of loose forwards across New Zealand.
In his first year with the All Blacks, former coach Steve Hansen handed Frizell just four caps before he featured off the bench against the Springboks in the following year’s Rugby Championship.
That wasn’t enough to convince Hansen and his assistants to include the 27-year-old in the 2019 World Cup squad in what was an indicator of where he laid in the national pecking order.
Handed a reprieve via Luke Jacobson’s tournament-ending injury before the competition had even kicked-off, Frizell was called upon to feature against South Africa, Canada, Namibia and Wales, but his inclusion as injury cover showed he wasn’t considered a first-choice selection by the All Blacks.
That changed last year when he started in four of New Zealand’s six tests in a shortened test calendar on the back of some impressive displays in the newly-formed Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Some mixed performances in the first three Bledisloe Cup tests against the Wallabies ensued, but Frizell was then culled from the match day side in the wake of Argentina’s first-ever victory over the All Blacks in Parramatta last November.
"If you want to select a player capable of beating the best opposition in the world, chances are you wouldn’t look in Japan for him."
– Hamish Bidwell on why the All Black selection policies should change. https://t.co/XIxbk1Iw0p
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 19, 2021
Criticised by many for his lack of discipline and ineffectiveness against a powerhouse Los Pumas forward pack, Frizell’s performance in that fixture undid much of his good work to establish himself as New Zealand’s top pick at blindside flanker in the wake of the World Cup.
In his side’s next and final match of the Tri Nations, Frizell was replaced by Akira Ioane, the man long-heralded as a future test star who was finally beginning to reach his highly-touted potential with a string of compelling displays for the Blues and All Blacks.
Ioane continued that rich vein of form with a man-of-the-match display in Frizell’s absence to establish himself, in many people’s eyes, as the new first-choice No 6 heading into the 2021 season.
That mindset among the masses surely has to have changed at this point of Super Rugby Aotearoa, though, considering Frizell’s immense output and Ioane’s comparative downfall.
An explosive operator with ball in hand and a hard grafter without it, Frizell has set the tone for those looking to cement themselves as Jerome Kaino’s bona fide successor as New Zealand’s premier blindside flanker.
The 13-test back rower has shown many times over the years how much damage he can inflict on opposition players by charging his 1.95m, 108kg frame at the defensive line with little regard for his own well-being.
It’s almost surprising that he isn’t one of the numerous high-profile players dropping like flies due to injuries across New Zealand as a result of his confrontational style of play.
What’s more impressive, though, is his superb work rate, defensive efficiency and ability at the set piece – all of which were prominent aspects of Ioane’s game that thrust him to the All Blacks’ No 6 jersey by the end of 2020.
Not only has he lasted for the full 80 minutes of the Highlanders’ last five matches, the numbers Frizell has produced in those outings have been top notch.
As it stands with two rounds to play in the regular season of Super Rugby Aotearoa, no player in the competition has carried the ball as many times (78) as Frizell, nor has any other forward beaten as many defenders (20) as the ex-Tonga U20 representative.
Furthermore, his versatility as a genuine lineout option is reflected in the fact that he ranks fourth for lineout wins in Super Rugby Aotearoa (18), while he sits in the league’s top 10 tacklers with 59 to his name.
In Friday’s 35-29 win over the Blues alone, Frizell didn’t miss a beat as he completed all 11 of his tackle attempts, carried the ball 12 times and secured nearly half of his side’s 10 lineout throws.
Blues prop Alex Hodgman will play no further part in Super Rugby Aotearoa this season after copping a ban for his red card against the Highlanders on Friday. #SuperRugbyAotearoa https://t.co/drUW9xg5Aa
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 19, 2021
What can’t be relayed in statistics, though, is the vigour and commitment he put into that performance, two aspects of his game that have been ever-present all season.
That led Highlanders co-captain Ash Dixon to lather Frizell in praise for answering the franchise’s call to step up in place of the injured Liam Squire in the face of an all-star Blues loose forward trio.
“He’s taken it to a new level,” Dixon said of Frizell’s efforts in the post-match press conference.”I thought, tonight, he was immense. He was defensively sound, he carries the ball hard, and his work rate is pretty phenomenal.
“Like I said before, he was playing three All Blacks loosies [Ioane, Dalton Papalii and Hoskins Sotutu] and he stood up really well. For us, he’s been massive with Liam sidelined for the season.
“Someone needed to step up and play some minutes, and he’s been our go-to, so I hope he continues and keeps going as well as he does and it’ll be great for us. He’s been awesome.”
His sterling display against the Blues wasn’t just crucial in helping the Highlanders surge to victory, but it was also instrumental in elevating himself back into pole position in the race against Ioane for a place in the All Blacks’ No 6 jersey.
While Ioane hasn’t been bad by any means, he certainly hasn’t returned to his scintillating self of 2020 where he turned his long-standing deficiencies – work rate, defence and set piece ability – into strengths and highly-valued assets for whichever team he played for.
Instead, Frizell has been the shining light in all those respects, and, with the All Blacks set to face off teams with juggernaut forward packs such as the Springboks and France later this year, those qualities will be akin to gold for Ian Foster’s side.
That isn’t to say Ioane doesn’t remain one of New Zealand’s two best blindside flankers, even if head coach Leon MacDonald has opted for new skipper Tom Robinson in his starting lineups in recent weeks.
If last year is anything to go by, the 25-year-old clearly has the capability to foot it with Frizell and challenge for starting honours for the All Blacks leading into the next World Cup and beyond.
But, if Frizell continues his strong form at domestic level, it will be increasingly difficult to deny one of the Highlanders’ most consistent performers the All Blacks’ No 6 jersey in the coming months.
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now