Before Wednesday’s clash between the Maori All Blacks and Ireland kicked off, you could have been forgiven for thinking Zarn Sullivan had hit a bit of a speed bump in 2022.
The 21-year-old playmaker burst onto the scene during last year’s Super Rugby Trans-Tasman competition. While Sullivan spent the Blues’ first seven matches of the season in the stands, an injury to Stephen Perofeta opened the door to earn a debut start against the Chiefs in the final round of the side’s Aotearoa campaign.
Sullivan spent the next six weeks camped at fullback en route to the Blues’ first major title since 2003 and the young utility back was undoubtedly expected to kick on in the back stages of the year.
Surprisingly, Sullivan missed out on selection in the Maori All Blacks squad for their two fixtures with Samoa. Instead, Kaleb Trask and Josh Ioane were preferred as fullback options.
Come the provincial season, Auckland managed just one game before their season was put on hold due to a Covid breakout in the region – and Sullivan’s breakout year came to a premature end.
While Sullivan was given the first shot at the Blues No 15 jersey in 2022, it became quickly apparent that an injury-free Perofeta coming off the back of an incredibly successful NPC with Taranaki was in too good nick to leave out of the team. Beauden Barrett’s delayed return to action due to ongoing concussion symptoms meant Perofeta played much of the first half of the Super Rugby Pacific campaign at flyhalf, with Sullivan at fullback. When both Barrett and Perofeta were fit for action, however, Sullivan found himself demoted to the bench – and that’s where he featured in the Blues’ final three games of the season.
So important was Perofeta to the Blues’ cause, however, that Sullivan earned just 12 minutes of action in those knockout matches against the Highlanders, Brumbies and Crusaders.
With Ioane now the Maori’s first-choice five-eighth due to Otere Black heading overseas, and Trask on the mend from injury, Sullivan found himself competing with fellow youngsters Connor Garden-Bachop and Josh Moorby for fullback duties and was given the first bite of the apple against Ireland on Wednesday.
A lack of action in the latter half of 2021 – in what was Sullivan’s second season of professional rugby – undoubtedly left the youngster scrambling to get back to his best when Super Rugby Pacific kicked off. In contrast, Perofeta had helped lead Taranaki to a Championship final and was rightly crowned the player of the provincial season.
Still, Maori All Blacks coach Clayton McMillan determined that two years into his Super Rugby career, it was time to give Sullivan a chance to shine on a higher stage. With Ioane now the Maori’s first-choice five-eighth due to Otere Black heading overseas, and Trask on the mend from injury, Sullivan found himself competing with fellow youngsters Connor Garden-Bachop and Josh Moorby for fullback duties and was given the first bite of the apple against Ireland on Wednesday.
He certainly didn’t let his side down.
Despite his young age, Sullivan unquestionably boasts one of the educated boots in the country and he put it to good use early in the match. It was a remarkable 50/22 from the fullback that handed the Maori All Blacks their first prime attacking ball of the night and fittingly, Sullivan scored from close range after some good work off the lineout.
10 minutes later, the home side was in again after the 6-foot-3 Sullivan leapt into the air to take a bomb from Irish flyhalf Ciaran Frawley, then fought his way forwards to set up some dominant attacking possession for his side, with Shaun Stevenson eventually racing away for the try.
With just minutes left to play in the half, another accurate aerial take from Sullivan resulted in a try to number 8 Cullen Grace – giving the Maori All Blacks an unassailable 32-10 lead.
It wasn’t a perfect display from the young outside back – with his hands letting him down on more than one occasion – but on a slippery, dewy night in Hamilton, Sullivan showed plenty of touches of class to indicate that with another season or two of rugby under his belt, he could become a major force at the highest level of the game.
With a build not dissimilar to Jordie Barrett and a skillset to match, the biggest factor in Sullivan’s progression could be the position in which he chooses to specialise moving forward.
Beauden Barrett has just one more year left to run on his contract with New Zealand Rugby and the Blues and could look to head offshore following the 2023 Rugby World Cup, which would open up the No 10 jersey in Auckland.
At schoolboy level, Sullivan was an out-and-out first five-eighth and it’s only since linking up with Auckland and the Blues that he’s pushed out to fullback – primarily due to the quality players both those sides already boasted in the No 10 jersey.
With experienced options such as Harry Plummer and Simon Hickey both contracted to Auckland, there are still some roadblocks ahead of the 21-year-old if he does want to transition back to the role he preferred as a youngster.
Beauden Barrett has just one more year left to run on his contract with New Zealand Rugby and the Blues and could look to head offshore following the 2023 Rugby World Cup, which would open up the No 10 jersey in Auckland. Without any experience at provincial level under his belt, however, it’s difficult to see Sullivan being handed the duties ahead of Perofeta, who has now been selected in the All Blacks and identified as – first and foremost – a flyhalf option.
“We see him as a 10 who can play 15,” said Ian Foster after naming his first All Blacks squad of the year, “and it gives us a nice little option in terms of selecting our 23, having someone who can cover both which maybe means you can take a midfielder in to compliment that at times.”
While Sullivan undoubtedly possesses the skills needed to make a great first five-eighth, it could be that his future remains at fullback – especially thanks to his excellent work under the high ball.
Although Jordie Barrett earned some minutes in the No 12 jersey for the Hurricanes this year, Foster made it clear that he still saw the tall utility player as a fullback because closer to the action, he wouldn’t be able to make as much use of his height.
“He goal-kicked so well, his high-ball stuff is very good; he’s got a strong kicking game and they were things he was able to exhibit through the year,” Foster told the NZ Herald during the Super Rugby Pacific season.
“Particularly when you get to the Northern Hemisphere style you have to have the ability to deal with that high ball and make sure you’ve got a strong kicking game in your back three.”
Foster would likely see Sullivan in a similar light and although the current All Blacks coach is expected to call time on his career following next year’s World Cup, there’s still plenty of merit to his comments.
New Zealand might be clamouring for some new blood in the No 10 jersey, especially with the possibility of both Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga departing after 2023, but Sullivan already boasts many of the traits required of a world-class fullback and it would be a shame to force a square peg into a round hole.
Despite a slow start to the year, Zarn Sullivan showed against Ireland on Wednesday evening that he’s developing into an excellent player and with more matches to come in 2022 for the Maori All Blacks, Auckland and likely the All Blacks XV, the 21-year-old is becoming a major force in the New Zealand game.
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