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RUGBYPASS+ Luke Jacobson omission sends clear All Blacks message

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Luke Jacobson omission sends clear All Blacks message
2 weeks ago

Head coach Ian Foster made it clear last year that the best pathway to cracking the All Blacks was to focus on one position and one position alone.

“Quite honestly, when it comes to a World Cup squad, [versatility] becomes a big factor because you’re limited to fewer players and your replacement protocols are different,” he said.

“But when you’re picking a squad in-between years, you’re really looking at people who can really have an edge in a position that’s going to contribute to your game.”

Foster was referring to David Havili at the time – a man who had struggled to fight his way back into the side until he was given an extended run in the No 12 jersey for the Crusaders, instead of flitting across the backline – but the same message could equally apply to loose forward Luke Jacobson.

Jacobson has been popular with the national selectors for a number of years and was included in the All Blacks team to travel to Japan for the 2019 World Cup despite having just one bench appearance to his name when the squad was first named. While concussion curtailed his season – and further injuries effectively also kept him out of the side in 2020, the former New Zealand Under 20s captain was back to his best last year and earned himself 10 more appearances for the All Blacks throughout their 15-game campaign.

Luke Jacobson made a deserved return to the All Blacks in 2021. (Photo by Patrick Hamilton/Getty Images)

Jacobson featured in both the No 6 and No 8 jerseys for the national team last year and found himself in a similar situation for the Chiefs in 2022, effectively plugging whichever gap needed filling in the run-on side. While an unfortunate injury in the opening round of the competition sidelined Jacobson for a month, he still managed to accumulate 12 appearances for the Super Rugby franchise. Although Jacobson was able to enjoy a relatively fruitful campaign, however, he was tasked with playing in all three loose forward positions, making four appearances on the blindside flank, three on the openside, and three at number 8.

When it came time to announce the squad on Monday, Jacobson was a notable absence. Instead, the All Blacks have plumped to run with a group that includes Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Dalton Papalii, Akira Ioane, Hoskins Sotutu and Pita Gus Sowakula.

Somewhat echoing Foster’s comments from last year, All Blacks selector and assistant coach John Plumtree made it clear following the first squad naming of the year that shifting between the roles had hurt Jacobson’s selection chances.

“Luke’s been good too,” said Plumtree when discussing the loose forward mix. “The thing with Luke is he can play in three different positions in the loose forwards which makes him pretty valuable [but] obviously we’ve got Ardie, Dalton who can do that. It was just really the mix of the loose forwards.”

That’s not to say there isn’t any flexibility among the group.

Jacobson has simply done what’s been best for his Super Rugby team this year – and he’s now paid the price for it.

As alluded to by Plumtree, Papalii can cover both flanks while Savea has performed in all three loose forward roles for the All Blacks while Akira Ioane and Pita Gus Sowakula have both earned minutes on the blindside flank and at the back of the scrum for their respective Super Rugby sides. Even Sam Cane has spent time in the No 8 jersey for the Chiefs. Tellingly, however, all six of the selected loose forwards for the July test series with Ireland have almost exclusively focussed on one position alone this year.

Starting with the Blues, all five of Ioane’s starts this season have been in the No 6 jersey, while all 10 of Papalii’s appearances have been at openside flanker and all 12 of Sotutu’s have been at number 8. Savea has earned 10 starts for the Hurricanes this season – all at number 8 – while Cane’s been exclusively used on the openside flank for the Chiefs. Only Pita Gus Sowakula has played across two positions, earning one solitary start at blindside flanker, but 12 of his 13 appearances have been at the back of the scrum.

Jacobson has simply done what’s been best for his Super Rugby team this year – and he’s now paid the price for it.

It’s worth asking the question, however, how the All Blacks selectors plan on making sure the utility players that are so useful at a World Cup are up to speed come the big dance. Between now and the tournament kicking off in France next September, the All Blacks are likely to play between 17 and 18 matches.

Although the coaches were willing to gamble on an inexperienced Jacobson in 2019, they would undoubtedly prepare to take a group of loose forwards to the World Cup who have had ample opportunities in the test area. That’s not going to be possible, however, if Foster, Plumtree and co want to incorporate utility players who they have decided are surplus to requirements in years between the showpiece tournament.

Luke Jacobson. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Yes, every test match is important (despite what the powers that be have been trying to convince the masses as they attempt to push through with the Nations Championship) – but the World Cup is the ultimate prize and it’s what every coach should be working towards. Jacobson may not have as much technical expertise at number 8 as someone like Hoskins Sotutu, who’s been wearing the jersey all season for the Blues, but that’s unlikely to be the difference between a win or a loss against the Springboks in South Africa.

The men who Foster believes will play important roles at next year’s flagship event are the men who should be playing against Ireland in July. If utility players are needed at the World Cup, as Foster said last season, then utility players should be included for the coming three-game series.

Dalton Papalii may well be a world-class blindside flanker with time – but would it be wise to thrust him into the No 6 jersey when he’s not played a minute of action in the role since 2020? Likewise, could you expect Akira Ioane to perform at the back of the scrum when his last appearance at number 8 for the Blues was over a year ago?

Further muddying the waters is the fact that Ethan Blackadder earned a test call-up for the first time last year while playing across all back-row positions, which somewhat undermines Plumtree’s comments. The All Blacks selectors have oftentimes strayed away from giving clear explanations for why some players are included over others which is a source of endless frustration for fans, and Plumtree probably didn’t help himself by including the throw-away line, “it’s just a preference thing” when talking about the loose forward selections.

Whatever the case, Luke Jacobson can take some solace in knowing he’s likely the next cab off the ranks should injury strike the All Blacks loosies this year. The 25-year-old will undoubtedly be mulling over whether he’ll be quite as considerate with Waikato as he has been with the Chiefs and will perhaps look to put his foot down and focus on one role in the coming NPC competition. It appears that the days of being a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ might be behind the young loose forward – that’s if he wants to put himself in the best position to earn a recall to the national side.

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