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FEATURE Another World Cup dark horse has emerged for the All Blacks

Another World Cup dark horse has emerged for the All Blacks
1 year ago

Now over halfway through the regular Super Rugby Pacific season, Ian Foster will be starting to pencil in some of his All Blacks selections ahead of the impending Rugby World Cup.

Perhaps unlike last year, when a number of call-ups appeared to be made on early-season form, Foster will wait until the knockout stages of the competition to really underline his selections.

Cullen Grace was somewhat of a surprise omission from the national set-up in 2022 after dismantling the Blues lineout in the grand final while Pita Gus Sowakula was named when his form was on the wane, and he quickly dropped out of the frame after earning two caps against Ireland in July.

Injuries will inevitably once again play a role this year.

Sevu Reece and George Bower have already been ruled out from taking part in the World Cup while others such as Quinn Tupaea, Will Jordan and Angus Ta’avao are yet to make on-field appearances in 2023 and face a race against the clock to prove their readiness for the game’s flagship tournament.

Quinn Tupaea is still on the mend after suffering an ACL injury in a Bledisloe Cup clash last year. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

While Foster will likely favour past performances over current form, there are certainly a handful of players whose showings throughout the season to date will make them hard to ignore, especially in Chiefs country where last year’s beaten semi-finalists find themselves sitting pretty atop the Super Rugby ladder.

Following another win at their Hamilton fortress on Friday night, the Chiefs find themselves five points clear at the top of the table and will face another litmus test at Waikato Stadium next weekend when they take on the ever-improving Crusaders.

The forwards have picked up where they left off last year but it’s in the wider channels where the Chiefs have made the most strides in 2023.

The likes of Shaun Stevenson, Etene Nanai-Seturo and Emoni Narawa have been lighting up the park this season, contributing 16 tries in the side’s eight games played to date.

Stevenson, in particular, must have thrust himself into Foster’s considerations for the coming World Cup, especially with first-choice No 14 Jordan still unsighted this year.

Even if Jordan does make it onto the field in the coming weeks, Stevenson has still established himself as a battle-ready back-up.

“He’s really close,” said Crusaders coach Scott Robertson this week regarding his young winger’s impending return. “He trained well, but just wasn’t quite there.”

Even if Jordan does make it onto the field in the coming weeks, Stevenson has still established himself as a battle-ready back-up for the national side this year, and will be going head to head with the likes of Caleb Clarke, Mark Telea and Leicester Fainga’anuku for a Test berth.

In Friday’s 50-17 win over the Fijian Drua, Stevenson found himself playing on the wing – where he would likely suit up for the All Blacks – instead of in his normal position of fullback, and managed to maintain his rich vein of try-scoring form, finishing off a nice long-range effort in the eighth minute of the encounter.

But it’s not Shaun Stevenson’s performance on Friday night that will have most captured the interest of Foster – nor that of his successor, Robertson.

Instead, it was the injection of Gideon Wrampling off the bench at halftime that will have set their hearts aflutter.

Gideon Wrampling captained the Chiefs Under 20 side in 2021. (Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

21-year-old Wrampling has long been on the high-performance radar after proving an immense talent at boy schoolboys and Under 20s levels.

He earned his Waikato debut towards the end of 2020 and followed suit for the Chiefs a few months later. After a strong NPC season in 2021, Wrampling was expected to make a major splash in last year’s Super Rugby competition but injury kept him off the field for the entirety of the year.

It was only a few weeks ago that Wrampling finally made a return from injury, playing club footy before getting a run for the Chiefs development side.

With the likes of Anton Lienert-Brown, Quinn Tupaea and Alex Nankivell all injured at present – draining the Chiefs of almost 200 Super Rugby caps – Wrampling finally got the chance last night to make just his second appearance for the side, and he certainly didn’t disappoint.

Wrampling put his pace, power and skills into practice against an admittedly out-of-sorts Drua side, bumping off a handful of defenders, skipping around others, and delivering well-timed passes to set his outside backs away on some dangerous runs.

With only nine matches remaining for the Chiefs this season, should they make it all the way to the final, Wrampling doesn’t exactly have ample time to prove his capabilities to Foster.

From the set-piece, Wrampling was used as a key point of attack by the Chiefs, with the youngster putting to good use the extra muscle he appears to have packed on during his time off the field.

While he was used at inside centre off the bench, Wrampling has the speed required to play on the wing and it wouldn’t come as a surprise to see him used in that role as the season rolls on, especially once Lienert-Brown, Tupaea and Nankivell all return to action.

With only nine matches remaining for the Chiefs this season, should they make it all the way to the final, Wrampling doesn’t exactly have ample time to prove his capabilities to Foster – who was parked up in the stands at Waikato Stadium for Friday’s fixture – and it could be that it’s not until Robertson takes over the helm as All Blacks head honcho that the young Chiefs utility back gets an opportunity on the national stage.

The All Blacks XV’s tour to Japan later in the year, which will take place over the same weekends that NZ takes on South Africa and Argentina in the Rugby Championship, appeals as an obvious opportunity to test Wrampling’s capabilities, should he get a few more runs on the board during the Super Rugby season.

But an out-of-the-blue call-up to the All Blacks isn’t entirely out of the question. Wrampling has all the physical requirements to be an international midfielder our outside back, and other young players have made a big impact on the world stage during the formative years of their careers.

Chiefs co-captains Brad Weber and Sam Cane were both rested for the team’s big win over the Drua. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Even if the All Blacks are not on the horizon for Wrampling, his return from injury is a massive boon for the Chiefs, who were able to record their 33-point win without any of All Blacks Sam Cane, Brad Weber, Luke Jacobson or Lienert-Brown – five players who will all be key for the run to the play-offs.

Josh Lord’s return to action off the bench also throws another spanner into the works for Foster’s World Cup calculations. Lord might only be fifth or sixth in the national pecking but before injury ended his 2022 season, he was arguably the form New Zealand lock in Super Rugby. Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick and Scott Barrett are certainties to travel to France later this year but whether they’re joined by Patrick Tuipulotu, Tupou Vaa’i or Lord – or a combination of the three – is still up in the air.

Players in winning teams tend to get the rub of the green when it comes to national selection and the Chiefs are very much a winning team at present. Their hot form, should it continue throughout the remainder of their Super Rugby Pacific campaign, could spell good news for some left-field World Cup options.


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