If 2022 is anything to go by, Super Rugby performances in the coming weeks aren’t likely to have a massive influence when Ian Foster names his first All Blacks squad of the year in less than a fortnight’s time.
Cullen Grace was arguably the most impressive player throughout last season’s finals series, almost single-handedly dismantling the Blues’ lineout in the title decider. Grace, however, missed out on national selection, with the likes of Pita Gus Sowakula, Akira Ioane and Hoskins Sotutu named ahead of the young Crusader back-rower.
After an underwhelming July series, Foster and his fellow selectors tweaked the loose forward mix, replacing Sowakula with Shannon Frizell. Grace remained on the outer, however, and an injury suffered in the opening rounds of the NPC ended any chances of him featuring on the end-of-year tour for either the All Blacks or the All Blacks XV.
The fact that the first national squad of the season is being named before the Super Rugby Pacific final means that any superlative performances in the last game of the season will once again be ignored but with finals footy on the cards for the All Blacks later in the year, the selectors will likely be paying closer attention to how some players on the fringes of selection stand up over the coming two weeks of action.
Grace, unfortunately, is once again unlikely to find himself in the frame thanks to another frustrating injury which saw him leave the park against the Waratahs in the Crusaders’ penultimate game of the regular season.
With countless other capped loose forwards performing to a high standard throughout the season – and the vast majority of them likely to feature in the finals – Grace’s limited minutes in 2023 mean he’s all but out of the World Cup equation. Grace has mustered just seven appearances this year due to various niggles and with no clear timeframe on his return, it appears that he will have to set his sights on 2027 if he’s ever to feature at rugby’s showpiece event.
There is, however, better news for fellow Crusaders loose forward Ethan Blackadder.
The 28-year-old made such a big splash in the Test arena in 2021 before a serious shoulder injury suffered in last year’s Super Rugby knockout games prevented him from backing that form up in the black jersey in 2022.
Like Grace, Blackadder’s involvement in 2023 has been minimal, to say the least. Four appearances in the No 6 jersey in the opening five rounds of the competition would have reminded Foster what Blackadder is capable of but a calf injury has kept him sidelined ever since. This Saturday, Blackadder will make a return to the field via the Crusaders bench in their quarter-final showdown with the Fijian Drua in Christchurch.
Sam Cane and Ardie Savea are perhaps the only two loose forwards who are certainties to travel to France later in the year.
Dalton Papalii is arguably the next cab off the ranks but with Cane likely to start every big game on the openside flank, there’s a very real chance that Papalii’s greatest value could be as a squad replacement for Cane should the All Blacks captain go down with injury. It might serve the All Blacks better to carry utility forwards who are capable of slotting in anywhere across the back row and while Papalii has spent time on the blindside flank and recently made a less-than-impressive appearance at No 8 for the Blues, he’s very much a specialist fetcher.
Blackadder and Luke Jacobson are perhaps the two most versatile loose forwards in the country and while the latter has been in storming form for the Chiefs, the former has been favoured by the current crop of selectors. Both are adept across the back row and their flexibility would no doubt prove useful throughout the World Cup, but they also look capable of starting in the No 6 jersey should Foster and co decide the likes of Frizell or Ioane are not up for the challenge.
Blackadder has limited time to make an impact before the All Blacks squad is announced but the selectors tend to favour ‘class’ over form and may well decide that if Blackadder is fit and able, he’s too good a player to leave out of the national set-up.
The likes of Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick and Scott Barrett have all been penned in for the World Cup for some time now but the fourth spot remains up for grabs, with Patrick Tuipulou and Tupou Vaa’i the two most likely contenders to travel to France.
Tuipulotu has the experience but has never been able to consistently rise to the standards required for Test rugby while Vaa’i was anointed as the next ‘big thing’ when he first earned selection in 2020 and while he has slowly progressed his game, might not yet be able to play the tight rugby demanded of a World Cup play-off.
Lord, meanwhile, was arguably the form lock throughout last year’s Super Rugby season and was named in the All Blacks squad at the beginning of their campaign but was quickly ruled out for the season through injury, never getting to make an appearance in the black jersey. Injuries again haven’t been kind to the 22-year-old but after making a club appearance last week, his return to the field couldn’t come at a better time for his national hopes.
Tuipulotu and Vaa’i, on the other hand, will both miss their respective Super Rugby sides’ quarter-final matches – and the former won’t play any part in the Blues’ playoff run thanks to an arm injury suffered against the Waratahs last weekend.
It’s not just Blackadder and Lord who will have points to prove over the next two weeks, however.
With props dropping like flies throughout the season – especially Crusaders – both Tamaiti Williams and the fit-again Oli Jager could be in the discussion for first-ever All Blacks berths. The former, in particular, has been a stand-out this year and while he’s ticked many of the boxes required to justify his selection as an All Blacks tighthead, he’ll be packing down in the No 1 jersey for the second time this season when the Cantabrians take on the Drua.
The All Blacks used nine props in 2022. Karl Tu’inukuafe is now playing in France while Angus Ta’avao has been sidelined for the entirety of the Chiefs’ campaign. George Bower and Fletcher Newell have succumbed to injuries themselves during the year, managing just two starts and seven appearances between them, leaving just five fit and able bodies for the first All Blacks squad of the season – and that’s assuming ageing stalwart Nepo Laulala and one-Test loosehead Aidan Ross remain part of Foster’s plans.
Given the above, there certainly appears to be a relatively clear pathway for 22-year-old Williams to earn a debut during the Rugby Championship.
Further out, Brad Weber’s return from injury means he has at least one more match to stake a claim for one of the three World Cup halfback berths. He is likely vying with Finlay Christie for the ‘experienced’ option to back up Aaron Smith, with Cam Roigard appealing as a potential game breaker.
The news isn’t so good for David Havili and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, however – neither of who are likely to feature in the knockout stages of Super Rugby. Anton Lienert-Brown, Rieko Ioane and Jordie Barrett are all World Cup certainties but there’s likely room for at least two more midfield options. Havili has perhaps already cemented his place in the team but it’s safe to say that Tuivasa-Sheck’s days in the black jersey have come to an end.
The All Blacks selectors seemingly paid more attention to the formative stages of the Super Rugby season than the finals when selecting their first squad of 2022 but with a World Cup on the horizon, it’s performances in the next two weeks of this year’s competition that should dictate the pecking order when it comes time to naming the team. For some players finally returning from injury, that’s a major blessing.