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Guessing game

Patrick McKendry

When Jack Goodhue and Joe Moody limped off the Sky Stadium pitch in Wellington during the first 25 minutes of the Crusaders’ dramatic golden point victory over the Hurricanes, the watching All Blacks coach Ian Foster may have wondered who would be next to join a casualty ward already including skipper Sam Cane.

He had his answer in the second half; the Hurricanes’ inspirational skipper and loose forward Ardie Savea, who wrenched a knee, had it bandaged, and continued for as long as he could before making way just after the hour mark in what was a remarkable performance that highlighted all of his toughness and ability to work near miracles in terms of claiming turnovers.

“Ards was desperate to lead that team and show what it meant to him, and he did it,” Hurricanes coach Jason Holland said afterwards.

Fortunately for Savea and Foster, the injury may not be as serious as Goodhue’s knee problem or Moody’s plantar fascia foot issue with both certainly facing at least some time on the sidelines. Unfortunately for Savea, the match finished in a 27-30 defeat thanks to David Havili’s coolly-taken dropped goal.

For Foster, the bigger picture is becoming murkier by the week because there are some senior All Blacks playing in Super Rugby Aotearoa who have rarely looked better. But some have not been playing nearly as well, and he’s already lost at least one important cog – Cane – for the short term at least. Liam Squire is another loose forward whose injury misfortune has continued.

All Blacks captain Sam Cane will spend the better part of the test season on the sidelines following a pec injury suffered in the Chiefs’ win over the Blues. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

Savea is one in the credit column – and his willingness to put his head in dark and dangerous areas to claim turnovers makes him easily the form No 7 in the competition (despite his presence in a wildly inconsistent side) and a worthy replacement for Cane, who is out for up to six months with a chest injury.

The loose forward area is a healthy one in general for Foster. Highlander Shannon Frizell is playing consistently well in a team with its own issues in stringing positive results together. Blues loosies Tom Robinson, Hoskins Sotutu and Dalton Papalii have been busy and explosive, with Akira Ioane making a strong start to the season before fading slightly. The uncapped Ethan Blackadder, missing at the weekend due to a minor neck injury, has been a revelation at the Crusaders this season. Luke Jacobson at the Chiefs is defending as well as any of his rivals.

That’s good news for the All Blacks, who are scheduled to play tests against Italy (twice) and Fiji (once) in July before the Rugby Championship, but Foster will need to get the balance of his loose forwards right. Should the busy and talented Robinson make it after a couple of injury-plagued years, it will be fascinating to see how he performs alongside, say, Sotutu and Savea.  However, a Papalii/Frizell combination with Sotutu and Savea probably appears most likely at present.

For Foster, the bigger picture is becoming murkier by the week because there are some senior All Blacks playing in Super Rugby Aotearoa who have rarely looked better. But some have not been playing nearly as well, and he’s already lost at least one important cog – Cane – for the short term at least.

Regardless, Foster has options and he has them at lock, too. There he has Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett – the Crusaders who are two of the best in the competition – along with Blues skipper Patrick Tuipulotu and the Chiefs’ Tupou Vaa’i, who made his test debut last year. Crusaders’ back-up Mitchell Dunshea is also playing with genuine impact, as evidenced by his intervention in the final quarter against the Hurricanes at the weekend, albeit at blindside flanker. 

It was also Dunshea’s charge down of an attempted clearance in extra-time that led to the attacking phase finished by Havili’s final intervention. Unfortunately for Pari Pari Parkinson, who was in excellent form for the Highlanders, a recurrence of an ankle injury may prove a setback in his bid for higher honours.

A trimmed down Brodie Retallick will also be back in the mix once the Japanese season finishes in May, adding to the already well-stocked riches in the the second row.

Foster won’t be complaining about the form of his hookers, either; Codie Taylor has gone to a new level for the Crusaders after an intensive off-season training regime and Hurricane Dane Coles is returning to his niggly best (lineout issues against the Crusaders recently notwithstanding), with Asafo Aumua in handy nick too.

After an injury-enforce stint on the sidelines to kick off the season, Dane Coles has looked hungry since his return to action. (Photo by Marty Melville/Photosport)

Moody’s potential stint off his feet shouldn’t hurt the national team too much given the form of the Blues’ loosehead props Karl Tu’inukuafe and Alex Hodgman. The Auckland-based side also have two of the best tighthead props in the country in the form of Nepo Laulala and Ofa Tuungafasi

It’s in the midfield where most of Foster’s concern may rest. Goodhue had had a very quiet season before his injury, Anton Lienert-Brown has only recently hit his stride at the Chiefs and Ngani Laumape, while strong at the Hurricanes, is prone to lapses of ill-discipline and ill-judgment. 

His elbow to Scott Barrett’s chest/neck area after being cleaned out in the recent match against the Crusaders could easily have led to a red card. Laumape is also being linked with French club Stade Francais and it appears his days in a black jersey are numbered.

Brayden Ennor has yet to play for the Crusaders this season due to a knee injury – although his comeback may not be too far away – which leaves Havili and the promising Leicester Fainga’anuku as the defending champions’ only front-line midfielders. 

But such is Fainga’anuku’s form – he leads the competition in defenders beaten and was a big handful in Wellington – that Foster may want to take a closer look at a player who can operate at either centre or wing.

Goodhue had had a very quiet season before his injury, Anton Lienert-Brown has only recently hit his stride at the Chiefs and Ngani Laumape, while strong at the Hurricanes, is prone to lapses of ill-discipline and ill-judgment.

Chiefs midfielder Quinn Tupaea is another Foster may have been interested in, but unfortunately Tupaea also injured a knee at the weekend during his side’s golden point win over the Highlanders.

Hurricane Peter Umaga-Jensen, an All Black last year when he came on as a replacement against Australia at Eden Park, may be in the frame but his form hasn’t been as compelling as either Havili’s or Fainga’anuku’s. That, at least in part, rests on the fact that he’s surprisingly spent much of the season warming the bench behind Billy Proctor.

Rieko Ioane’s form at the Blues has also been impressive but the jury remains out on whether he can consistently perform well in the No 13 jersey in test matches because there are still question marks around his defensive instincts, albeit not his tackling ability.

Havili hasn’t played a test since 2017 and his versatility – he is known primarily as a fullback – may have counted against him in the past. But his reliability and leadership displayed at the Crusaders and Tasman may be too hard for Foster to resist this year.

It was David Havili’s coolly-slotted drop goal in extra-time that won the game for the Crusaders against the Hurricanes this weekend. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

“I have said it before – about his versatility – it is pretty special,’’ Crusaders coach Scott Robertson told Stuff. “If you generally look at rugby players around the world, what he can do is pretty unique.

“There are only a handful that can play in multiple positions at that level. We are pushing for him to wear that black jersey through that ability to cover those positions at such a high level.’’

Caleb Clarke, Rieko Ioane, Will Jordan, George Bridge, Jordie Barrett, Sevu Reece and Damian McKenzie are all back three options for Foster, with Bridge just returning from injury and fullbacks Barrett and McKenzie in the most commanding form in terms of their playmaking abilities. Beauden Barrett is also due to return from Japanese club rugby in time for the test season.

So the tight forwards will largely pick themselves, with some strong contenders for loose forward, including a definite in a fit Savea who will likely play in his favourite No 7 jersey. Outside of incumbent halfback Aaron Smith and regular first-five Richie Mo’unga, however, the selection of the backline for the first test of the season against Italy in early July – date and venue to be confirmed – is very much a guessing game.

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