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Loose ideas

Tom Vinicombe

While it’s perhaps come about in an unfortunate way, Ian Foster’s loose forwards picture has become slightly less muddled ahead of the July internationals.

New Zealand has no shortage of in-form flankers and number 8s with past and present All Blacks such as Dalton Papalii, Luke Jacobson, Hoskins Sotutu, Ardie Savea and Shannon Frizell all impressing throughout this season’s Super Rugby competitions.

Factor in the recent jumps made by Akira Ioane and Cullen Grace who, probably by their own admission, weren’t firing on all cylinders at the start of the season, and Foster and his fellow selectors would have a challenge on their hands even if they were only going to stick with the tried and tested for July.

That was never going to be the case, of course, with men like Ethan Blackadder, Lachlan Boshier and Du’Plessis Kirifi all stamping their mark at various stages throughout the season to date.

All in all, there’s a slew of players pushing for maybe nine spots in the first All Blacks squad of the year – but the latest injury news coming out of the Highlanders’ camp means the cupboard isn’t quite so jam-packed.

13-test All Black Shannon Frizell is set for up to six weeks on the sidelines after suffering an ankle injury late in last week’s victory over the Reds.

Shannon Frizell and his fellow All Blacks training ahead of the first Bledisloe Cup test of 2020. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The All Blacks are set to kick off their season against Tonga on July 3, less than a month from now, which puts Frizell’s involvement in the mid-year internationals at serious risk.

It’s a big blow for the 27-year-old who’s been in career-best form this year, but it does make things a little bit easier for Foster and co.

Despite his strong performances for the Highlanders over the past three years, Frizell has never fully convinced as an All Blacks starter. His trademark physicality and dominance at Super Rugby level has never translated into the test arena and by the end of last year, Akira Ioane had usurped Frizell as the first-choice blindside flanker despite playing just two matches in the black jersey.

While Frizell has taken his game to the next level in 2021, is it now time for Foster to look elsewhere?

As it happens, the decision has been made for Foster, with Frizell’s unfortunate injury likely to limit his involvement in New Zealand’s matches with Tonga and Fiji.

Ardie Savea has been shifted to the back of the scrum by both the All Blacks and the Hurricanes in recent seasons but it’s on the flank where the 27-year-old looks most at home.

That clears the pathway for Ioane to build on the excellent form he showed against Australia and Argentina last year and prove that he can maintain consistent performances over an extended stretch of matches.

After all, the All Blacks are scheduled to play a mammoth fifteen matches over five months this year.

An injury to captain Sam Cane also opens up a spot in the No 7 jersey for a hungry openside flanker and there are four men who will be battling it out for selection.

Ardie Savea has been shifted to the back of the scrum by both the All Blacks and the Hurricanes in recent seasons but it’s on the flank where the 27-year-old looks most at home. With so many options to fill the other loose forward roles, now appeals as the obvious time to hand Savea the No 7 jersey to prove that it shouldn’t be he who has to move positions when Cane finally returns for duty.

Then there’s Dalton Papalii, a man who’s been in and around the All Blacks squad for a number of years but had few opportunities to actually show off his talents.

Dalton Papalii has been New Zealand’s best-performing openside flanker throughout 2021. (Photo by Jeremy Ward/Photosport)

Papalii has grown an arm and a leg in 2021 and is more than deserving of some regular minutes in the black jersey.

2020 was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the All Blacks after the 2019 World Cup but the global pandemic threw a spanner in the works and gave Foster few chances to really rotate his squad and test some up-and-coming stars.

If the All Blacks coaches want to build depth ahead of 2023 then now is the first true step in that process and giving minutes to second and third-choice players is the only way to create that much needed depth.

If Savea and Papalii impress, then perhaps Cane won’t find his return to the No 7 jersey so easy, which will push all three players to reach even greater heights.

A third openside flanker could be needed for the series, which would open a door for Du’Plessis Kirifi or Lachlan Boshier, but Foster may rely on the utility value of some of the other loose forwards to cover the role, if needed.

Sotutu perhaps doesn’t hit quite as hard in the tackle or snaffle as many turnovers as Jacobson, but he’s an exceptional athlete and passes and kicks like a back – which are huge assets in the counter-attack dominated game of the modern era.

It’s impossible to look past Chiefs number 8 Luke Jacobson, who was selected for the 2019 World Cup but had his tournament cut short due to concussion and didn’t feature for the All Blacks at all last year.

Now injury-free, Jacobson appeals as an abrasive tackler and ball carrier who can slip into all three loose forward positions as needed.

His main competition for the No 8 jersey is Hoskins Sotutu, who burst onto the scene last year and impressed in his limited opportunities for the All Blacks.

Sotutu perhaps doesn’t hit quite as hard in the tackle or snaffle as many turnovers as Jacobson, but he’s an exceptional athlete and passes and kicks like a back – which are huge assets in the counter-attack dominated game of the modern era.

Like Jacobson, Crusaders loosie Cullen Grace has chosen to specialise as a number 8 this year after flitting between the loose forward roles last season. That led to slow start to the season for the 21-year-old, with Crusaders coach Scott Robertson acknowledging earlier in the season that his young charge needed more time in the saddle.

Hoskins Sotutu takes a lineout for the Blues. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

“He’s a real physical player, has an incredible shoulder on him, incredible ability to anticipate play, but probably just hasn’t quite got the opportunities he has years before,” Robertson said. “The tightness of games, he’s made a lot of tackles, he’s had a couple of niggles that have come right.

“We’re looking for more from him. The surprise package has gone, as you have in the first year. He’s not far away, he’s doing all the simple things really well, he just hasn’t got those opportunities to make a big play and get in the newspapers.

“The variables of the weather, who you’re playing, the way their nine defends, all those things come into play but he is learning his craft and getting better at it, it’s just game time for him.”

While Grace has made strides in the latter half of the season, imposing his physicality around the park and at the set-piece, it could be that the youngster needs more time at number 8 under his belt before he can claw his way back into the All Blacks selection frame.

Given his age, Grace has played precious little rugby and also missed the majority of the Mitre 10 Cup season last year due to his All Blacks commitments, so a campaign with Canterbury would likely do his rugby development a world of good.

He’s a real physical player, has an incredible shoulder on him, incredible ability to anticipate play, but probably just hasn’t quite got the opportunities he has years before.

Crusaders coach Scott Robertson on Cullen Grace

His absence in the national set-up could open the door for teammate Ethan Blackadder, who’s come on in leaps and bounds in 2021 after spending the majority of the past two years sidelined through injury.

The wild card could be Blues flanker-cum-lock Tom Robinson, who took over his franchise’s captaincy duties during Patrick Tuipulotu’s stint on the sidelines. Robertson is just as comfortable putting his head into dark places as he is roaming on the sidelines and would add a genuine third lineout option to any All Blacks selection.

Throw men like Pita Gus Sowakula, Devan Flanders and Billy Harmon into the equation and Foster isn’t lacking for options in the loose forwards – but the absences of Shannon Frizell and Sam Cane at least make selection slightly easier for the upcoming mid-year tests.

With just three games on the calendar for July, there won’t be too much chopping and changing going on, but the fact that New Zealand are lining up against two sides they’ve never been bested by in the international arena will give Foster some confidence that even if he does tinker with his team, the results likely won’t be in danger.

While 2020 kicked off a new era, 2021 really looms as the kick-off point for the next Rugby World Cup and Ian Foster will use the 15 tests at his disposal to build a team capable of wrestling the trophy back off South Africa in three years’ time.

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