It is a time when the head coaches of all the top-tier nations at the forthcoming World Cup rummage through their provincial pockets for last-minute possibilities, to fill the problem positions. There are just over three short months to the start of the Rugby World Cup in France and that is the focus.
No spot has caused both New Zealand and Australia more heartache in recent times than blindside flanker. The Wallabies have never replaced the estimable Scott Fardy to everyone’s satisfaction, while the new Jerome Kaino has yet to be unearthed in the shaky isles.
In 2022, Australia and New Zealand tried nine different men between them at the thorny blind-side spot. The All Blacks trialled four different options – Akira Ioane (four starts), Scott Barrett (three) and Dalton Papali’i (one). They eventually settled on Shannon Frizell, who made the most run-ons overall (five).
Australia went one better, trying five different players at No 6 throughout the course of the international season: they kicked off with Rob Leota in the July series against England (three starts in 2022), while Rob Valetini, Harry Wilson and Ned Hanigan all got the nod once. Jed Holloway was the run-on pick for the bulk of games (eight) and finished as the first choice on the November tour.
But it would be an exaggeration to say that either Holloway or Frizell are nailed-on certainties at the World Cup. Both head coaches, Ian Foster for New Zealand and Eddie Jones for Australia, are probably looking to see whether they can extract more from the position than either of the incumbents offer.
The Super Rugby Pacific round 14 match at GIO Stadium in Canberra was ‘Le Crunch’ for the two nations. It featured the top team from each country – the Brumbies from Australia and the Chiefs from New Zealand – so there was the subliminal text of an extra World Cup trial before the tournament begins in earnest.
In the event, New Zealand won the contest with something to spare. The Chiefs were 31 points to 7 up with only 10 minutes to go, and only two late tries by the Brumbies made the result on the scoreboard look closer than the dynamic of the game had previously suggested.
The men from the North Island won most of the contests they need to win on the night. Even though they conceded 60 per cent of the territory/possession to the home side, and enjoyed only 16 minutes on attack compared to the Brumbies’ 23, the Chiefs controlled the bulk of the action.
While the men from Canberra turned over the ball on 12 of their 15 entries to the red zone, emerging with a miserable 1.4 average points-per-entry, the Chiefs doubled up with six successful outcomes out of 11 and 2.8 points per entry. The Brumbies’ long attacking sequence in the 35th minute – lasting for a total of four minutes and 26 phases, and eventually ending in a turnover – was symbolic of the entire game.
Brodie Retallick showed that he still has a huge hunger for success at this level, and was the rock on which the visitors’ defensive lineout was built, in the air and on the ground. At a succession of drives close to the goal line, Australia’s number one team got no return from their number one play, and that was the kiss of death to their chances of winning the game.
Outside Retallick, the two forwards who put up the biggest numbers may very well become candidates for the number 6 role in their respective national sides in 2023. The irony was that neither started the match on the blindside flank of the scrum: Luke Jacobson started at number 8 for the Chiefs, while Tom Hooper was in the second row for the Brumbies:
Tom Hooper’s work rate for the home side was phenomenal, and he applied it across the board. The figures above do not even include his 23 significant appearances at the cleanout on attack – again, first on the team.
Hooper won as many lineouts as Nick Frost, he carried more ball and made more metres over the advantage line than Rob Valetini. Somehow, he still had the energy left to make the most tackles, steal a ball on the ground and lead a winning counter-ruck on defence. With such a huge engine yoked to an imposing physical frame (Hooper is 6 feet, 6 inches tall and tips the scales at 122 kilos), he could just be the answer to Eddie Jones’ prayers at number 6.
Hooper started in his more natural position in the back row in the knockout stages of the 2022 edition of Super Rugby Pacific, evoking nostalgic memories of Scott Fardy for ex-Wallaby head coach Michael Cheika in the Stan commentary: “He was tireless tonight, he did a lot of tight work. I haven’t watched a lot of him but he is a real competitor, which I love.”
“I was a big fan of Scotty Fardy. It’s quite funny because [ex-Brumby full-back] Jesse Mogg quite often likens me and ‘Fards’ together because we’re not necessarily the fastest blokes, but we get through a bit of work and do the hard yakka. I don’t know whether that’s a positive or he’s actually having a go at me.
“I always looked up to him and you see a bloke like that – just a tough bugger, going into contact, coming out with scars on his face. That’s the sort of bloke I want to model my game off and I’m lucky enough to be sitting in his locker right now.
“We share a locker, so hopefully I can emulate his game a bit more as the season goes on. But all those kinds of characters: Rocky Elsom, Owen Finegan – tough number 6s, with a bit of skill [are my role models].”
Tom Hooper’s presence would potentially result in two Hooper-men in the back row, along with v1.0 Michael on the opposite flank and big Rob Valetini in between them as the eighth-man.
Tom Hooper dovetails very nicely indeed with Valetini at provincial level, and the pair seem to have an intuitive understanding:
Tom (in the gold cap) is in the van, leading the counter-ruck a la Fardy or Finegan, and Valetini is there to dig the ball out behind him and win the penalty.
The complementary relationship is even clearer off lineout:
The first is a lineout steal off the Chiefs’ throw, and Hooper’s ability in that sphere of operations could become vital if Eddie Jones decides he wants Will Skelton starting in the second row. Valetini immediately steps up on the first-wave carry after Hooper has done the spadework.
The second clip illustrates how the attack pattern could work for the full national side: first Hooper winning the ball at lineout, then slot in Samu Kerevi for Tamati Tua on the first carry in midfield, with Valetini to follow on the next phase. It is a mouth-watering prospect for supporters of the green and gold.
Now imagine Valetini in the centre of the forward pod in the next example, attracting most of the defensive attention with Hooper outside him to exploit any gaps that appear in the line:
Luke Jacobson has been hovering around the fringes of the New Zealand match-day 23 for what seems like an eternity, without ever getting a decent run in the starting XV. Some important aspects of the game are currently trending in his favour, so he may well get the shot he deserves in the truncated 2023 Rugby Championship.
The man with concrete shoulders on defence is steadily developing his contribution on attack. At 6’3 he is a source of lineout ball, with his 15 takes and two steals ranking only below the three principal Chiefs’ second rows (Retallick, Tupou Vai’i and Naitoa Ah Kuoi), and that is important in any back row featuring Ardie Savea at number 8.
The new trial laws requiring the defensive No 9 to retreat behind the hindmost foot, rather than advance beyond the mid-point of the scrum have also enhanced his value as a number 8, picking up at the base. It probably accounts for the subtle-but-significant switch of positions in Hamilton, with Pita Gus Sowakula more regularly being used on the the blindside flank in 2023 with Jacobson at the back of the scrum:
Number 8 forwards can now break left or right, and run a much wider arc from the base, and that change places a new premium on Jacobson’s speed off the mark and finesse with ball in hand. Luke Jacobson has never had a problem with his ball-handling, but the power of his work after first contact is something new:
In its own way, this piece of running off the base is as impressive as that outstanding individual try in only the third minute of the game. Jacobson breaks five tackles and picks up 15 of his 17 metres post-contact. That is what will really make Foster and his fellow selectors sit up and take notice, because it shows that Jacobson has the power to run off Ardie in heavy traffic.
It is not too hard to picture Joe Schmidt buzzing with ideas, flipping them over at the base of scrums and creating headaches for the opposition. Even at the death, Jacobson was showcasing his full range of footballing skills:
His presence in the starting back five for the All Blacks would also increase their flexibility on defence. Like Ardie, Luke has played in every spot in the back row. He led the Chiefs in tackles after round 13 with 132 stops, and he had the most dominant hits (12) on the team. His experience at No 7 means he can lead the forwards around the openside corner after the first phase from lineout, or defend comfortably next to the first back on kick-chase:
The round 14 game between the top team in New Zealand and the best side in Australia resulted in a clear win for black over green and gold. There is still a gap in quality which Australia is struggling to close with its five-region format. Eddie Jones will be concerned about that.
The excellence of the Brumbies’ best forward, Tom Hooper, however, will have given him a great filip in a position of need. Hooper was selected in the second row but his production numbers were what you typically expect of the row behind it.
Like his role model Scott Fardy, Hooper is big enough to be a lineout athlete and quick enough to carry, clean out and tackle, and do it for the entire 80 minutes. He already blends well with Rob Valetini, and could potentially provide the ideal foil for his name-sake in the Wallabies back-row. He is teak-tough to boot, and that is the kind of player that Eddie Jones loves.
Luke Jacobson presents an even more intriguing possibility for an All Blacks unit which has never satisfactorily replaced Jerome Kaino. Akira Ioane was too loose, Scott Barrett might have more of the second row in him, and Shannon Frizell still has to prove he won’t drift out of the big games when it matters. It might leave just enough of the door ajar for an outside man to squeeze through, and out into World Cup daylight.
If both men can provide the answer to questions which have been asked so insistently at No 6 since the last World Cup in 2019, Australia and New Zealand will both be well-placed to spring a trap on France in their home tournament, and forestall any hint of a premature celebration among Les Tricolores.