The Battle for Read's All Blacks jersey
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: New Zealand’s traditional post-World Cup exodus saw a number of experienced heads relocate off-shore at the end of 2019.
Gone are Ben Smith, Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty from the New Zealand backline, alongside flank Matt Todd and captain Kieran Read.
All five will need replacing come the July Test series, but it’s the last name on that list that will cause the most contemplation from new All Blacks head coach Ian Foster.
Even last year, there seemed to be uncertainty in the ranks of the New Zealand selectors with regards to who made up the best loose forward trio in the country.
Read, Ardie Savea and Sam Cane were the three top dogs, but Savea and Cane were both primarily openside flanks.
Savea was shifted onto the blindside flank for a significant proportion of the All Blacks’ biggest matches but he was returned to the 7 jersey for the semi-final, with Cane dropping to the bench and lock Scott Barrett starting at 6.
It was a decision that didn’t pay obvious dividends, with the All Blacks’ lineout struggling against the might of Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes and George Kruis.
One of the biggest decisions Foster will have to make in his first year as the man in charge will be deciding how to utilise the pair of Cane and Savea now that Read has flown the coop.
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Foster’s comments made on the Sky Sports’ The Breakdown suggest that we will likely see both running out in the All Blacks’ top team.
“It’s not a position of concern, but it’s definitely a position of interest,” Foster said of the blindside flanker role which hasn’t been permanently occupied since Jerome Kaino left the country after the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour.
“We used Ardie there before, and I love the potential of what he does, you have to have him on the park, and we’ve got a number of guys we’ve utilised.”
With Cane a likely candidate for Read’s vacated captaincy role, it would be a surprise for him to miss out on a place in the starting loose forward trio, which leaves one spot open.
Whether that’s in a 6 or 8 jersey is somewhat irrelevant, with the loose forward roles becoming more and more homogenous as time goes on.
Given the size of Cane and Savea, the expectation is that Foster will look to bring in a player with a bit more mass – someone who can compete with the likes of Billy Vunipola and Pieter-Steph du Toit.
“This Super campaign is really vital for those positions – 6 and 8 – we need people to actually show week-in, week-out that they’ve got what it takes to make the next step,” said Foster.
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Already, two players that wouldn’t have even been on most people’s radars last year have started making waves in Super Rugby.
Those men in question are the Crusaders’ Cullen Grace and the Blues’ Hoskins Sotutu.
When the squads were first announced for the 2020 competition late last year, few would have known who these two were. Even fewer still would have guessed that they’d be earning starts for their franchises so soon into the Super Rugby season but that’s what’s eventuated.
The Crusaders have parted ways with Read, Todd and Jordan Taufua since last year, opening up three vacant positions in the loose forwards.
Despite that gap in the team, Grace was still parked behind Whetukamokamo Douglas, Tom Sanders, Billy Harmon and Ethan Blackadder.
Injuries to the latter three saw Grace make his maiden start for the Crusaders in their round three victory over the Blues, and what an impact he had.
Grace made 17 tackles, stole three lineouts and forced turnovers on three occasions. Those would be exceptional stats for a veteran of the game but, for a newbie, they’re downright incredible.
A week later, against the Highlanders, Grace had a similar impact.
Grace’s 1.90-metre, 106-kilogram frame isn’t quite in the same league as Vunipola or du Toit, but it’s still a step up from both Cane and Savea.
The former Timaru Boys captain represented New Zealand at the Under 20 World Championship in Argentina, spending all his time in the second row, and never looked physically inferior to his opponents.
It was a similar story in last year’s Mitre 10 Cup, with Grace playing almost exclusively at lock in his five appearances.
While it might be a little premature to suggest that Grace is an All Black in waiting, Brodie Retallick was selected for the national side the same year that he debuted for the Chiefs and with New Zealand’s youngest Super Rugby player of 2020 playing so well in his game time to date, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone if Grace does get the call up later in the season.
Sotutu, who turned out for the New Zealand Under 20 side a year earlier, faced similar roadblocks to Grace at the start of the season.
With men like Dalton Papalii, Blake Gibson, Tom Robinson and Akira Ioane on the Blues’ roster, it was hard to envisage Sotutu even cracking the bench.
Ioane, a player who many felt was never given a fair crack at the All Blacks under Steve Hansen’s reign, was supposed to take things to another level in 2020.
Sotutu’s strong performances in the Blues’ two pre-season outings, however, was enough to justify his selection ahead of Ioane for the Blues’ opening game of the year and he’s now cracked on to start all four of his franchise’s matches to date.
While Grace has been dominant on defence, Sotutu has stood out thanks to his hunger on attack and seemingly insatiable desire to hit breakdown after breakdown.
With almost identical measurements to Grace, it’s also good to see Sotutu’s softer skill on show, with a deftly weighted grubber kick from the number 8 setting up a try for wing Mark Telea in the Blues’ win over the Waratahs in round two.
Sotutu doesn’t have the same lineout prowess as Grace but he would add some extra impetus on attack, which the All Blacks lacked at times in 2019.
Between the two men, Foster has two very good options to bring onto the Test scene for 2020 – but there’s one other player who’s yet to really feature this year who will likely have a major say in the proceedings.
Luke Jacobson, who was one of the biggest selection surprises for last year’s Rugby World Cup, has managed just 10 minutes for the Chiefs in his first game of the season on Saturday night before succumbing to a hamstring injury.
Jacobson has already been dealt a poor hand in his pro career to date with concussion limiting his appearances for Waikato and the Chiefs before it ultimately cut short his World Cup campaign.
If the former Under 20 captain can clock up some injury-free minutes on the pitch this year then he’ll be a shoe-in for Foster’s first squad of 2020 – but that’s a big if, given his history.
Throughout the last World Cup cycle, the likes of Shannon Frizell and Vaea Fifita were given opportunities for the All Blacks without them every cementing a spot in the squad. Now, the younger generation are coming through and look hungrier than ever.
Cullen Grace and Hoskins Sotutu and have made big strides already this year in the race to replace Kieran Read for the All Blacks while Luke Jacobson has obvious untapped potential. Which of these three will impress Ian Foster the most over the next 17 weeks?
By Tom Vinicombe, Rugbypass