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RUGBYPASS+ The era of Ardie Savea has arrived

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The era of Ardie Savea has arrived By Tom Vinicombe

The test season ahead is shaping as a pivotal one for Ardie Savea

Ever since the 27-year-old first travelled to Europe as a non-playing member of the All Blacks in 2013, he’s been gunning for the coveted No 7 jersey.

Having formally made his debut for the New Zealand national side in 2016, Savea clocked up 22 test caps for the side over his first two seasons, but made just four starting appearances.

While Richie McCaw had retired from action following the 2015 World Cup, Sam Cane was seen as the natural successor in the black jersey and Savea had to cope with playing second-fiddle to the future All Blacks captain.

When Cane broke his neck playing against the Springboks in 2018, Savea stepped in to fill the void and quickly proved to Steve Hansen that he was too exceptional a player for the All Blacks selectors to leave off the park, even when Cane returned to action early the next year.

Ardie Savea made his All Blacks debut against Wales in June 2016. (Photo by Andrew Cornaga/Photosport)

While Savea has always been an out-and-out openside flanker, he’s been shifted around the All Blacks backrow to accommodate for men like Cane and former captain Kieran Read.

In the early stages of his career, that meant slotting into the blindside flanker role. More recently, that’s led to the Hurricanes captain packing down at the back of the scrum.

In fact, this weekend Savea will make his 25th start for the All Blacks – but just his 11th in the No 7 jersey.

In much the same way that Cane’s absence in 2018 paved the way for Savea to establish himself as a starting player – in whichever jersey the selectors felt needed covering on any given week – the latest injury suffered by the All Blacks captain presents Savea with an opportunity to lock down the jersey you suspect he’s wanted to fill all along.

being in this time in my career now, I don’t want to be that guy that can shift around and make room for other people so for me, in this stage of my career, I love to make a stamp in a position, stay there and try and dominate that globally.

Ardie Savea

Earlier this year, shortly before Cane suffered the pectoral injury that prematurely ended his season, Savea acknowledged that he wanted to focus on one position moving forward, instead of being forced to fill in across the backrow as needed.

“For me, playing at 7 or 8, I’ve had that mindset in the past where if I’m starting and I’m on the field, I’m just grateful,” he said on The Breakdown.

“But being in this time in my career now, I don’t want to be that guy that can shift around and make room for other people so for me, in this stage of my career, I love to make a stamp in a position, stay there and try and dominate that globally.”

When pressed on which position that might be, the 27-year-old was prudent with his choice of words.

“You’ve got to be honest. You have skip playing at 7 so obviously it has to be 8,” he said. “I’ve accepted that and trying to move forward into that position and nail skillset and just focus on that position – but I’m able to play 7 as well and I love that too.”

They were the words of a man who had accepted his situation like the seasoned pro he is, but not necessarily welcomed with open arms.

Du’Plessis Kirifi and Ardiea Savea have combined in the No 7 and No 8 jerseys for the Hurricanes over the past two seasons. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Sam Cane, as captain of the All Blacks, was always going to be the first name on the team sheet. If Savea were to continue to spend his time swapping between different roles, he would cede ground to the chasing pack of specialist players who are focussed on one position and one position alone.

He’s been forced to play at the back of the scrum not out of desire but out of necessity. Wearing the No 8 jersey for the All Blacks is better than wearing jersey No 19, and considerably better than not being selected in the team at all.

But Savea also made it clear that his heart still lay at openside flanker and with Cane out of the July tests and unlikely to return to the fold until late in the year, the All Blacks No 7 jersey again needs filling.

Savea’s lingering knee injury gave Dalton Papalii the first shot for the All Blacks, and much like performances with the Blues, Papalii was exemplary against Tonga – but he’s now dealing with an injury problem of his own.

The other thing I’ll add about Ethan is his versatility, that he had to play 7. We really quite enjoyed his games there and believe there’s a bit of a future there as well.

Ian Foster on Ethan Blackadder

Ethan Blackadder was given the nod against Tonga, with no other fit openside flankers available, but now that he’s again back up to full health, Savea has unsurprisingly been named to start in the final game of the All Blacks’ July series and will earn his 50th cap.

When New Zealand named their 36-man squad for their July schedule, Ian Foster and his fellow selectors opted for just two practised openside flankers: Savea and Papalii.

Luke Jacobson has also played at No 7 at Super Rugby level while Foster suggested new man Blackadder could also find a home in that jersey in the future.

“He’s played well. He’s really diligent in his preparation, he works hard on the small parts of his game and he’s had a really combatitive, sort of physical competition,” Foster said of Blackadder following the first squad naming of the year. “Injured last year so he was promising last year but he didn’t really get the opportunity but this year I think he’s warranted it.

“The other thing I’ll add about Ethan is his versatility, that he had to play 7. We really quite enjoyed his games there and believe there’s a bit of a future there as well.”

Ethan Blackadder, one of four debutants in the All Blacks’ win over Tonga, was named to start in the No 7 jersey for last weekend’s clash with Fiji. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

As was shown against Fiji last weekend, Blackadder is very much a work in progress in that role, and it’s one he might need to hone with support from the Crusaders, who will admittedly find it tough to cram all their loose forwards into their starting trio next season.

For now, however, it’s a straight choice between Savea and Papalii, and while they’re both capable of playing multiple positions in the back row, Foster looks set to plump for specialists this year when possible – at least in the run-on side.

In the years gone by, Savea’s position on the field has as much been dictated by the presence of Cane as it has by the absence of any other proven options in the other jerseys.

Since Jerome Kaino’s departure at the end of 2017, the All Blacks have struggled to find a long-term replacement for the bruising blindside flanker. Liam Squire was the man many expected to take over the mantle but he withdrew from the 2019 season for personal reasons, while Luke Jacobson was selected for the World Cup but was invalided before the competition even kicked off. As such, Savea clocked up plenty of minutes in the No 6 jersey throughout the season.

While Savea would no doubt do an exceptional job wherever he’s employed, there’s little reason for the Hurricanes captain to be shifted to the blindside flank or the back of the scrum when there are so many proven options in both those positions.

Last year, following Read’s departure, Savea was the first-choice number 8 for the All Blacks while Hoskins Sotutu earned one start against Australia and a handful of minutes off the bench.

In 2021, the options across the backrow are more plentiful – and more experienced.

Shannon Frizell – who replaced Jacobson at the World Cup – is coming off a storming season with the Highlanders and is now a veteran of three All Blacks campaigns. He continues to go toe-to-toe with Akira Ioane for the blindside flanker role although Blackadder is the wild card.

At number 8, Sotutu is one year wiser while Jacobson is injury-free and in career-best form.

While Savea would no doubt do an exceptional job wherever he’s employed, there’s little reason for the Hurricanes captain to be shifted to the blindside flank or the back of the scrum when there are so many proven options in both those positions.

With men such as the Blues pairing of Hoskins Sotutu and Dalton Papalii in form, there’s little reason for Ardie Savea to slot in anywhere bu in his preferred No 7 jersey for the All Blacks this year. (Photo by Andrew Cornaga/Photosport)

Foster did admit that there still remains the temptation to play Savea at number 8, given that’s the role he might have to play further down the track, but also suggested that Cane’s ongoing absence means the All Blacks have to be smart with their selections.

“We looked at all those options but at the moment, when we say Sam’s going to be back, Sam could be out for still a significant amount of test matches.” Foster said following the announcement of the side to take on Fiji in the second test.

“So we’ve got to prepare for the here and now and we’ve said Ardie’s clearly an 8 for us but he’s also a 7 so this is a chance to get him back into the 7 role and get his instincts back into that space.”

“What I do know is [Cane’s] tracking really, really well. I think at the time we put a 6-month type [timeframe on his recovery], towards the end of September. That’s still looking on track but what that means in terms of his return for us, we’re not really going to know until closer to that time. At the moment, I can’t see him being around for The Rugby Championship.”

Marty Holah – a man who could have amassed a century of caps for many test nations around the world – was forced to play second-fiddle to the great Richie McCaw, but it was the presence of Holah in New Zealand that helped push McCaw to become the player he was.

As such, Savea will have an almost uninterrupted run in the No 7 jersey – and if he can continue to maintain his excellent international form and the players around him perform to a high standard, legitimate questions will need to be asked whether the All Blacks selectors can justify again moving him away from his preferred spot when Cane returns to the fold.

Marty Holah – a man who could have amassed a century of caps for many test nations around the world – was forced to play second-fiddle to the great Richie McCaw, but it was the presence of Holah in New Zealand that helped push McCaw to become the player he was.

Matt Todd has performed a similar role for Sam Cane and Ardie Savea, but Todd has now departed NZ’s shores, which means Savea and Papalii need to keep Cane honest – but perhaps the pecking order will be switched up this year.

With Cane fit, Savea was never going to get the chance to prove that he’s the man to play at openside flanker for the national squad. With the captain absent, however, suddenly things aren’t quite so clear.

A huge campaign from Savea won’t necessarily flip the script for the All Blacks selectors, but it will give them food for thought – and that’s not something that many would have thought possible when Cane was named the full-time replacement to Kieran Read last season.

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