All Blacks' loose forward poser
SPOTLIGHT: When New Zealand travelled to the World Cup in Japan last year, the make-up of their first-choice loose forward trio was still not quite clear.
Their three best players – Kieran Read, Ardie Savea and Sam Cane – had been crammed into one trio to take on the Wallabies in Perth earlier in the year, but questions remained over the viability of that option.
Savea and Cane had traditionally been viewed as out and out openside flankers, but that thinking changed (or was forced to change) in 2019 when it became apparent that there was no one else ready to step up to the plate as an international blindside flanker.
Liam Squire, Jerome Kaino’s heir-apparent, had withdrawn himself from national selection for personal reasons while Luke Jacobson showed plenty of promise but eventually was pulled from the tournament due to lingering concussion issues.
The experimental trio in Perth was outplayed by their Australian opposition but the fact that the All Blacks were reduced to a seven-man pack for half the game due to a red card incurred by lock Scott Barrett made it difficult to assess the performance.
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The same trio again started against Australia three weeks later in the Bledisloe Cup decider and all three players stood up to help crush the Wallabies 36-nil.
Still, there were reservations about the combination.
Cane and Read had it all right, starting in their usual positions, but Savea was the one who was forced into a slightly different role on the blindside flank.
Questions were asked concerning whether Savea had the bulk or height to shift into the No.6 jersey, or if his influence would be stifled by the more conservative nature of the role.
Still, coach Steve Hansen persisted and it wasn’t until New Zealand’s ill-fated semi-final against England that a new option was trialled, with Barrett shifted from the second row onto the blindside.
It wasn’t quite the inspired selection that Hansen would have hoped for, with the English forwards comfortably playing their New Zealand opponents out of the game.
Hansen himself probably still wonder what his best option would have been going into that game. Jacobson and Squire were both back home in New Zealand, alongside the likes of Vaea Fifita and Luke Whitelock, while Shannon Frizell and Matt Todd were saved for the bronze playoff a week later.
Whatever the right answer is, it’s becoming clear that the role of each loose forward is no longer as simple as it was in the past.
Alongside the usual jobs of a forward, tackling, fetching and ball carrying was the traditional jobs of the blindside flanker, the openside flanker and the number 8, respectively.
Loose forwards are now expected to do all of the above, as well as running in open play, passing and sometimes even kicking.
There are simply no players on the field that are expected to have as diverse a pallet of skills as a loosie – and coaches and fans alike are expecting more and more from New Zealand’s players.
Jacobson, who has played almost zero rugby on the openside has been touted as Test-level 7 – simply because he can do all the jobs required of a modern-day loosie.
“I feel a lot more comfortable at 6 and 8,” said Jacobson at the Super Rugby launch. “I’ve had a little bit of time in the saddle at 7 to build a little confidence there.
“I’m not too phased where I am, as long as I’m out on the pitch. If that’s where the team wants me then sweet as, no dramas.”
Savea has also covered all three loose forward roles between the Hurricanes and the All Blacks while Cane has been used at the back of the scrum for the Chiefs.
In the Chiefs’ game against the Reds, late in the 2019 season, Cane was originally named on the blindside with Lachlan Boshier at 7 but when the pair ran out of the tunnel for the match, it was Boshier who’d been handed the No.6 jersey.
“To be honest, it wouldn’t worry me which number they have on their back,” said Chiefs forwards coach Neil Barnes ahead of the game. “We talk about what roles they’re going to do from a set-piece and, from there, it’s just rugby and they play, so it’s not a big deal.”
Cane also shed some light on the situation.
“As soon as [the team] got announced, Lachie and I talked and Neil came over and said ‘I don’t care which jersey you guys wear, you guys sort it out’.
“We were like ‘well I’m doing seven at line-out, Lachie’s doing six at lineout’. I said [to Boshier] ‘do you want to do seven at scrum time?’, he goes ‘I don’t really mind’. I said ‘sweet, I don’t mind either.’”
Because there’s so much more to the roles than simply tackling or causing a ruckus at the breakdown, the similarities between the two positions have grown so much compared to the aspects that make them unique that distinguishing between the two is almost pointless.
The current crop of New Zealand loose forwards that will contest for spots in the first All Blacks squad for the year are all more than capable of playing in at least two positions.
Incumbents Cane and Savea can effectively operate across the whole back row. Jacobson and Blues flank Dalton Papalii are in a similar boat – though their comparative lack of experience means they haven’t had the chance to show off their abilities in all three positions at Super Rugby level yet.
Then there are the hybrid lock/flankers like Barrett, Fifita, Frizell and Tom Robinson.
It’s fast becoming apparent that to progress to the next level, you’re going to need at least a few strings to your both – especially with compacted squads, such as at the World Cup.
With just 31 men allowed, the ability to cover more than one position is imperative and, thankfully, most of New Zealand’s loose forwards are capable of doing so.
The role of a loose forward has grown considerably since the early years of professionalism where specialisation was key. Now, strength lies in the breadth of skills and selection at the highest levels is becoming more and more dependent on it.
By Tom Vinicombe, RugbyPass