The man to handle Springboks lineout dismantlers
OPINION: It wasn’t long ago that Samisoni Taukei’aho couldn’t deliver a ball into the lineout to save himself.
In 2020, the 24-year-old started the Super Rugby season as the Chiefs’ first-choice hooker but was supplanted by Bradley Slater due to his greater reliability at the set-piece.
Week after week, Taukei’aho joined the fray late in the game and week after week, the big rake struggled to hit his targets at lineout time.
That changed late in the year, however, when Taukei’aho linked up with Waikato and put in the hard yards to make sure his accuracy was up there with the best in the business.
Come the Chiefs’ 2021 campaign, Taukei’aho had seemingly overcome the yips that had plagued him earlier in his career and finished the season as one of New Zealand’s best proponents at sending the ball into the lineout.
The Chiefs’ set-piece was safe as houses and although Taukei’aho missed out on the initial All Blacks squad for the season – with Codie Taylor, Dane Coles and Asafo Aumua preferred – he was quickly brought into the team when Aumua was hit by injury.
When Coles also ran into troubles, Taukei’aho was thrust into the matchday 23 and capped off a memorable debut against Fiji with two tries off the back of rolling mauls.
He also went on to make four further bench appearances on the trot before making his first and only start in a black jersey to date, running out against Argentina in the latter stages of the Rugby Championship.
At that point in the season, Taukei’aho had arguably been the All Blacks’ best performing hooker from the campaign, never failing to make an impact from the bench and inevitably chewing through some valuable metres late in the game.
Still, the All Blacks persisted with the considerably more experienced Codie Taylor – a man who at one point had been arguably the best hooker in the world – in the No.2 jersey for the end-of-year tour, despite middling form from the veteran and, in the final game of the year, opting for Dane Coles.
2022 started similarly, with Taylor handed the starting duties in each of the three tests against Ireland in July. Taukei’aho had to settle for 48 minutes off the bench in the first two matches before being omitted from the final game altogether.
Now, perhaps with his coaching position on the line, Ian Foster has finally handed Samisoni Taukei’aho a second chance to impress in a starting role – and it couldn’t come in a more hostile arena.
40,000 South African fans will be making it very clear to Taukei’aho on Saturday what they think of the travelling All Blacks side, and doing everything they can to throw the young hooker off his game at the set-piece.
Two years ago, the thought of Taukei’aho trying to deliver clean ball to the lineout while under pressure from the considerable frames of Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager and Pieter-Steph du Toit would have given All Blacks fans horrific nightmares.
Understandably, there will still be some unease around Taukei’aho’s reliability at lineout time. While he’s been secure in recent times of the Chiefs and in his few opportunities off the bench for New Zealand, handing him just a second start in a game against the Springboks in South Africa perhaps isn’t the best way to ease him into the role.
It’s the hand he’s been dealt by coach Foster, however, and one he’ll need to make the most of if the All Blacks are to have any hope of securing a victory in Mbombela.
The All Blacks struggled at times against the Springboks’ set-piece last year during their two Rugby Championship matches and while the out-of-form Taylor likely isn’t the man for the job against South Africa this year, it would have been preferable for Taukei’aho to have clocked up some starts throughout the past eight matches simply as a way of further acclimatising him to the duties at international level.
Taukei’aho will find himself going head-to-head with two of the best hookers in the game at present, Malcolm Marx and Bongi Mbonambi, and it’s difficult to envisage a greater challenge than being tasked with taking on those two monsters of the game in front of braying South Africa crowd.
Saturday’s match will be a trial by fire for young Samisoni Taukei’aho, but one he’ll undoubtedly take in his stride – he’ll have to if the All Blacks are looking to avoid starting the Rugby Championship on the back foot.
By Tom Vinicombe, Rugbypass