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All Blacks exclusion could be the making of Cullen Grace

Tom Vinicombe

It certainly won’t feel like it right now, but missing out on selection for the first All Blacks squad of the year might be one of the best things to happen to Cullen Grace.

The 21-year-old loose forward was perhaps the biggest omission from Ian Foster’s team for the upcoming July tests, with the selectors instead elevating his Crusaders teammate Ethan Blackadder into the fold.

Blackadder has been a storming success throughout the Super Rugby season after finally overcoming a seemingly never-ending run of bad luck that limited his appearances for the Crusaders to just 10 matches over the past three years.

The likes of 2020 All Blacks Shannon Frizell, Akira Ioane, Hoskins Sotutu and Dalton Papali have all shown varying degrees of form to date and have peaked at the right time of the season.

Factor in the return from injury of Chiefs number 8 Luke Jacobson and Grace’s shift into that same position for the Crusaders this year, after beginning his career as a blindside flanker, and a second call-up to the All Blacks was always going to be a tough ask for the youngster.

It took Cullen Grace some time to find his feet at number 8 for the Crusaders this season. (Photo by AAP Image/Darren England)

Make no mistake; Grace will be hurting right now. Even if he only had an outside change of backing up his selection from last year, it’s not easy missing out on a team you’ve been gunning for – especially when it’s a team as lustrous as the All Blacks.

In the years to come, however, Grace may look back on what’s unfolded and realise that his snub from the opening squad of the year could be the type of twist in his story that actually paves the way to a brighter future, the spurning that actually kick-starts his international career, not stalls it.

That might be hard to believe, given the crop of talent New Zealand has access to at present.

Along with Frizell, Ioane, Sotutu, Papalii and Jacobson, men like Ardie Savea and captain Sam Cane are automatic selections in the national team while there are others who are there or thereabouts, such as Blues utility forward Tom Robinson, Hurricanes tyro Du’Plessis Kirifi and Chiefs powerhouse Pita Gus Sowakula.

When Cane, Crusaders openside flanker Tom Christie and former All Black Liam Squire return to the mix next year, the picture will become even more crowded.

Grace spent just five minutes on the field for the All Blacks last year – coming on as a late replacement for Cane in the dying moments of NZ’s loss to the Wallabies in Brisbane. He didn’t get a touch of the ball, nor did he make a tackle.

But in much the same way that that Cullen Grace’s elevation to the top flight of rugby last year didn’t springboard him into putting on a bumper season for the Super Rugby Aotearoa champions in 2021, being wrapped up in another All Blacks camp wouldn’t necessarily be the best thing for the 21-year-old.

Because while Grace was spending time holding tackle bags at All Blacks trainings in Australia in the latter stages of 2020, his Mitre 10 Cup province was fighting for survival back home in New Zealand, having to put it all on the line each week just to avoid a shock drop into the Mitre 10 Cup championship division.

Grace spent just five minutes on the field for the All Blacks last year – coming on as a late replacement for Cane in the dying moments of NZ’s loss to the Wallabies in Brisbane. He didn’t get a touch of the ball, nor did he make a tackle.

The rest of his campaign with the national side was spent on the sidelines, learning the playbook and preparing for an opportunity that never really presented itself.

It was, by anyone’s standards, a rather bleak campaign for the Crusader – not through any fault of his own, mind you, Grace was simply a victim of circumstances.

He did have the opportunity to run out on five occasions for Canterbury in the early stages of the Mitre 10 Cup, before the All Blacks travelled to Australia – but it all amounted to just a handful of games over the latter half of the season, having missed the better part of the Crusaders’ Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign.

Cullen Grace spent more time on promotional duties for the All Blacks in 2020 than he did on the playing field. (Photo by Andrew Cornaga/Photosport)

In total, Grace played just 591 minutes last year – the equivalent of seven full games of rugby. That might be a worthwhile workload for an elder statesman ebbing out his final years in club footy, but that’s nowhere near the game time needed for a young player to develop his game such that he’s capable of stepping in and playing test matches against some of the fiercest opposition in the world.

Grace was in just his second year of playing professionally in 2020, having notched up four appearances for Canterbury the season prior, two at lock, two off the bench, and seven further for the New Zealand Under 20s – also in the second row.

Even now, a year later, what Grace needs more than anything is minutes on the park.

That’s not to downplay the nurturing and development that goes on in the All Blacks camp – any player worth half his salt will tell you that they took their games to new levels when they were first introduced to the highest of high-performance environments. In most circumstances, however, those players will have already reached a slow-down in their growth.

Players aren’t expected to be the finished article when they arrive on the international scene but Grace turned up with the bare minimum of experience under his belt and having switched positions for a second time this year, going from lock to flanker to number 8, 2021 was always going to be a challenge for the young man.

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.

Crusaders coach Scott Robertson on Cullen Grace

While Grace has all the physical attributes necessary to forge a long professional career, he’s still in the fledgling years of his development. Crusaders coach Scott Robertson affirmed as such earlier in the season, suggesting that while his young protégé is nailing the basics, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

“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.”

That’s really all there is to it – Grace simply needs time in the saddle, something he had very little of last year and something he would again be on track for in 2021 if he were to be included in the various All Blacks squads throughout the season.

Cullen Grace played in a handful of matches for Canterbury last year when released by the All Blacks from national duty. (Photo by Andrew Cornaga/Photosport)

While they’ve had different career trajectories, Luke Jacobson missed out on last year’s test team courtesy of a run of frustrating injuries throughout the Super Rugby season but he was able to notch up 870 minutes for Waikato during last year’s provincial competition.

After continuing to clock up the games during Super Rugby, Jacobson has now fought his way back into the All Blacks – and that’s what Ian Foster and his fellow selectors will be hoping to see from Grace.

The 21-year-old still has plenty of time to grow – as it stands, he would have been the second-younger player in the team behind Tupou Vaa’i while the likes of Blackadder and Ioane have five years extra experience on Grace.

But as much as that experience under the belt is important, the biggest factor in Grace’s future will be how he responds to the snub. Perhaps his omission from this early squad is more so the fault of the selectors, who in hindsight should have left Grace in NZ last year when they travelled to Australia – but heading into the NPC with a chip on his shoulder won’t do the young loose forward much good.

There will be disappointment, there will be anger, there will be frustration – and if Cullen Grace can channel that into some dominant performances on the park for Canterbury, then 2021 could mark the first step towards a long international career.

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