Skip to main content

One giant leap

Justin Marshall

As I reflect on the Super Rugby Aotearoa season, one that threw up a few more surprises that perhaps most of us expected, there were three players in particular that impressed me.

They were big movers and the reason why I mention the following individuals is because I feel there is an opportunity for them to push on and perhaps fill a positional void at the top level. 

The first is Crusaders wing/midfielder Leicester Fainga’anuku. After an excellent pre-season and injuries to George Bridge and Manasa Mataele, the 21-year-old Fainga’anuku was given an opportunity on the left wing early in the season by Scott Robertson and he proved to be a player who can provide that tackle-busting power which breaks games open. He is also a very good finisher as we saw with that spectacular dive in the corner for the try against the Chiefs in their first encounter in Christchurch.

What has impressed me about Fainga’anuku is that he had to show versatility following his move to centre once Jack Goodhue was ruled out. Some people say if you can play wing you can play centre too but that’s simply not true.

The running lines and defence – everything changes. Wings move off their sidelines these days and are often very proactive, but centres don’t move as much and have to pick their lines. Fainga’anuku did a great job at that and showed impressive composure and maturity.

Leicester Fainga’anuku’s size and strength make him a menace on the left wing for the Crusaders and the potential to play in the midfield will add another string to his bow. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

My point is we haven’t had any one or two players cement spots in the black No 11 jersey since Julian Savea and then Rieko Ioane. 

Savea’s last test was in 2017 and Ioane started only one test on the wing last year. In 2019 he was usurped by George Bridge, with Bridge and Sevu Reece the favoured combination at the World Cup until Caleb Clarke made his move last year, along with Jordie Barrett who has played all over the place including on the right wing.

The crux of it is we haven’t had any wing combinations cementing their positions and setting the world on fire. 

Fainga’anuku’s ability to finish, break tackles and defend well must have put him in the frame for the All Blacks this year.  

Ioane has played well for the Blues in the midfield, and Clarke, who had a blockbusting start to his international career, will be in the mix. But Clarke has struggled a bit since then and that can often happen to players who burst on to the scene. 

I feel Clarke has been stuck on his wing this year and therefore struggled for form because he didn’t get the ball enough. I remember playing against the great Jonah Lomu and Rupeni Caucaunibuca – as a defender you give everything to bring them down before they get momentum and that’s what Clarke is running into this year.

This year he didn’t brush aside defenders and make the same impact in Super Rugby because he was more heavily marked. That’s when players have to make adjust and find their way into the game.

I feel Clarke has been stuck on his wing this year and therefore struggled for form because he didn’t get the ball enough. I remember playing against the great Jonah Lomu and Rupeni Caucaunibuca – as a defender you give everything to bring them down before they get momentum and that’s what Clarke is running into this year.  

Coaches look at that ability to be versatile. And, while it can be a hindrance because it doesn’t help you establish a position, it may pay off for Fainga’anuku this year. He’s really put his hand up.

As did Highlanders halfback Folau Fakatava, so it was extremely disappointing to see him injure his knee, an issue which will rule him out for the rest of the year.

I believe we have three world-class 9s in Brad Weber, TJ Perenara and Aaron Smith, but Fakatava would have given Ian Foster a nice point of difference and at 21 years of age, has a long professional career ahead of him. He’s strong, breaks tackles and wins turnovers and those qualities lift your team considerably.

After clocking up experience for two years in the Hawke’s Bay side, Fakatava came to life for the Magpies in 2020. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Fakatava didn’t get many chances at the Highlanders last year but this year he put Smith under pressure. He’s one to bank for the future and hopefully he recovers from his injury and continues to play that style of rugby. He has to be in the frame. 

If you ask me who else might be worth a look in an extended squad, I think there’s value in persevering with Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi because I believe he’s a victim of a lack of game time at the Chiefs and needs to consider a move. I’m surprised he didn’t look at the Blues or vice versa. There were signs when he played for the Chiefs against the Blues at Eden Park the other week that he has something to offer.

As does Ruben Love, the 20-year-old Hurricanes first-five.

There’s a lot of expectation and interest in this No 10 and I certainly think he’s got potential. 

The All Blacks will be aware they don’t have depth in this area that they used to. Colin Slade, Tom Taylor, Aaron Cruden and Dan Carter have all gone. We have lost a lot of talent in that position.

I like Love’s composure and game management for a young player. That’s probably the hardest thing to do in Super Rugby – you have to control the ship and make sure it’s operating within boundaries of the team’s game plan. Young players not used to pace and intensity and lack of space can struggle to achieve that.

If, for argument’s sake, Beauden Barrett, currently on sabbatical in Japan, wasn’t returning to the All Blacks this year, then who would be the All Blacks’ second-choice first five? Many would say Damian McKenzie but he has been tried before and hasn’t been able to sustain that position.

Behind Richie Mo’unga, when you go through the Kiwi Super Rugby 10s, no one sticks out as All Blacks material, with the greatest respect. Josh Ioane, who made his test debut in 2019, hasn’t kicked on, and Mitch Hunt and Otere Black are good players but probably a level below the international game. 

There is a genuine opportunity for someone to sit in behind and put pressure on Mo’unga if Barrett isn’t available. 

I like Love’s composure and game management for a young player. That’s probably the hardest thing to do in Super Rugby – you have to control the ship and make sure it’s operating within boundaries of the team’s game plan. Young players not used to pace and intensity and lack of space can struggle to achieve that.

I have never seen Love look flustered and he’s a brave defender, which you need to be – you don’t want to be moved to wing or fullback to defend off set piece. His basics of the game – passing and kicking – have impressed me, as has his decision-making.  I remember when Dan Carter came to the Crusaders – he was green but when he got opportunities he was never flustered.

Ruben Love wasn’t expected to earn many minutes for the Hurricanes in 2021 but the 20-year-old has been thrust into the No 10 role. (Photo by Mark Tantrum/Getty Images)

Now for some general observations. 

Shannon Frizell’s form at the Highlanders has been very important because I believe the All Blacks are in a position of vulnerability as far as their loose forward mix is concerned.  

We still haven’t found a satisfactory replacement for Kieran Read at No 8 and while Ardie Savea can do a very good job there with his explosive running, his best position is at openside flanker.

He gets to the ball quicker, is very good over it, and his pick and go is so dangerous. At No8 he must play a bit looser and I don’t think that gets the best out of him. And he’s not a great lineout option like Read was. 

With Sam Cane missing through injury, the No 7 jersey is the one Savea is likely to wear for most of the year at least. 

Blues No 8 Hoskins Sotutu made a good fist of his chances for the All Blacks last year but is still very green. I believe the Rugby Championship was an eye-opener for him and he has to make shifts if he wants to be the player Read was.

There is no doubt we have incredible depth at hooker. Dane Coles is back playing great rugby and the Chiefs’ Samisoni Taukei’aho is pressing him and Codie Taylor alike. There is Asafo Aumua at the Hurricanes as well. 

The blindside flanker has to be a hard ball-carrying and tackling rock. He has to be a threat on defence like Jerry Collins and Jerome Kaino were. Frizzell is another player who has worked hard in the off season and he led the statistics in terms of carries and tackles. 

He is the form option, but is he also an option at No 8? He’s big and tall and runs hard. He’s a lineout threat. Now that Cane is out, Frizell and Savea in particular both have big years ahead.

There is no doubt we have incredible depth at hooker. Dane Coles is back playing great rugby and the Chiefs’ Samisoni Taukei’aho is pressing him and Codie Taylor alike. There is Asafo Aumua at the Hurricanes as well. 

There’s a lot of competition for that position and Taylor has obviously worked very hard in the off season. He’s lifted his game and everyone else needs to as well. He’s an excellent scrummager, he throws good lineout darts, and he’s become quicker and more powerful. He’s getting back and making tackles on wings and centres. His work at the breakdown turning over ball… Taylor has been outstanding.

Crusader David Havili must be putting his hand up for a place in the All Blacks midfield. Following the departures of Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, the midfield has been a bit messy.

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

We’ve seen the now injured Jack Goodhue at No 13 and Anton Lienert-Brown at No 12. We’ve also seen the pair swap positions, which, in my opinion, didn’t work as well. Ngani Laumape has been an on-again, off-again selection. 

Havili goes back to that Crotty type of player – a No 12 who has very good vision and makes good decisions – and I thought the Crotty/Goodhue combination was a very good one. Havili isn’t a hard runner like Laumape, but a Havili/Lienert-Brown combination might work for the All Blacks because the Crusader is an excellent first receiver option and has massive versatility. 

And now for the Damian McKenzie enigma. Look, I think he’s had an outstanding campaign at the Chiefs. He’s a threat across the park and he’s remained composed under pressure when kicking important goals late in games in the regular season – the final withstanding.

Are the All Blacks prepared to step out of their comfort zone and pick McKenzie and Jordie Barrett as their fullbacks, while Beauden Barrett is re-shaped as a No 10 or bench player? 

I think he’s handled that well and obviously he has versatility. But the All Blacks haven’t wanted to play him at fullback and I’m not sure he’s good enough to start at 10. 

McKenzie is probably our greatest threat at the moment in terms of an established All Black heading overseas. Any club in any nation would want him. He is on everyone’s radar simply because he can’t get a regular start or even a regular selection in the match day test squad.

Are the All Blacks prepared to step out of their comfort zone and pick McKenzie and Jordie Barrett as their fullbacks, while Beauden Barrett is re-shaped as a No 10 or bench player? 

McKenzie has so much to offer but he must be getting frustrated. That may come to a head this year after an excellent Super Rugby Aotearoa season. 

But to be a regular selection he has to oust some very established All Blacks, which brings me back to Beauden Barrett. Look at Barrett’s statistics last year – he started five tests (four at fullback and one at first-five – the loss against Australia in Brisbane) – and didn’t score a point. It’s not all about scoring tries obviously but for a player who scored 36 of them in his previous 83 tests, it’s become a concern. 

There are big decisions ahead for Foster and Barrett and they may have to change his role back to becoming a specialist No 10 or as an impact player who can come on in the final half hour and change the pace of a test. He is such a talent but we didn’t see the best of Barrett last year.

More expert columns

If you’ve enjoyed this article, please share it with friends or on social media. We rely solely on new subscribers to fund high-quality journalism and appreciate you sharing this so we can continue to grow, produce more quality content and support our writers.