By Scott MacLean
As usual one of the talking points of the Super Rugby campaign is the form of All Black incumbents, contenders, and pretenders. The 21st edition of the now-bloated competition starting this week will be little different, but this time there are some notable places to fill following the World Cup triumph and subsequent departures; not just for this season’s visit of Wales and the Rugby Championship, but next year’s Lions Tour as well.
Today it’s the forwards, with the backs to come later this week.
Loosehead: The departures of Tony Woodcock and Ben Franks makes the #1 jersey one area where both the starting and regular backup spots are vacant. After his elevation from playing NPC to starting the RWC final Joe Moody would appear to be the frontrunner, and should start at the Crusaders ahead of Wyatt Crockett. Now 33 and a veteran in anyone’s terms Crockett’s experience might see him hang on as the bench guy, but to do that he will have to head off both Pauliasi Manu – who was called in to replace him in the RWC squad – and Reggie Goodes.
Hooker: The old Steve Hansen joke about ‘our ageing hooker population’ might finally be hitting home after the retirements of Corey Flynn, Andrew
Hore, and most recently Keven Mealamu. New Hurricanes captain Dane Coles is the undisputed incumbent, but beyond him it’s pretty light. By virtue of his World Cup place Codie Taylor would appear to have the inside running on the deputy job, with Nathan Harris – barely sighted since his injury in Chicago in late-2014 – another who has at least pulled on black. Beyond that there’s the veteran (Hika Elliot), the journeymen (Ged Robinson, James Parsons, Liam Coltman), and talented youngster (Rhys Marshall) options for the selectors to keep an eye on.
Tighthead: On the surface there aren’t any real questions, with both the first-choice options in Owen Franks and Charlie Faumuina remaining available. However scratch beneath that and you’ll find some concerns now. Nepo Laulala would take care of that after ably-deputising for Faumuina last season and had moved to the Chiefs for more game time, but won’t take the field at all this year after essentially destroying his knee in training. Jeffrey Toomaga-Allen has been part of the environment in the past and will look to regain prominence after a couple of years blighted by injuries of his own and lacklustre outings when he was on the park.
Locks: Notwithstanding injury, two of the first names down on Hansen’s teamsheet go into the spaces numbered 4 and 5 where Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock have the places locked down, which needless to say is a very good thing. Depth-wise Luke Romano, who’ll partner Whitelock at the Crusaders, will start the season as third-choice while James Broadhurst, hooked after a lacklustre 40 minutes on debut in Johannesburg will be after second-chance, but has concussion issues to overcome first. Blue Patrick Tuipolotu and Dominic Bird, now at the Chiefs, will be two others looking to get their careers and aspirations back on track.
What remains to be seen however is how the selectors deploy their resources, having gone through the knockout stage of the RWC without specialist cover on the bench. They could go down that route again, revert to specialist cover, or hedge their bets and work with the franchises that someone, somewhere will develop into a genuine lock/blindside. Steven Luatua might just get there if its put to him it’s his best hope of getting back into black, while Blade Thomson might be another if he can get enough game time at both spots for the Hurricanes.
Blindside/No8: Like lock, the primary incumbents, Jerome Kaino and captain-in-waiting Kieran Read, return but their recent backups will not. Victor Vito has called time on his NZ career for now with a move to French club La Rochelle after Super Rugby, while Liam Messam won’t be considered until the northern tour having committed to the Sevens campaign (unlike the others he isn’t in any of the Super squads).
The opportunity then exists for someone to take a step-up and put themselves in the frame with a host of possibilities who that might be; the aforementioned Luatua and Thomson, Brad Shields, Jordan Taufua, Elliot Dixon, Luke Whitelock or even someone from beyond that group. Akira Ioane is another and could well be the future, but this year splits his time with the Sevens programme where he’s been in outstanding form.
Openside: The day has finally come, and life after Richie McCaw commences. While you don’t just simply replace someone of his calibre, Sam Cane has served as good of an apprenticeship as you could hope for and will be the frontrunner to run out in the #7 jersey this season. With Ardie Savea largely committed to the Sevens, Matt Todd is the logical next-option but worringly it gets pretty thin after that; arguably if confronted with losing one, or heaven forbid both, Hansen would be faced with having to pull strings to recall Savea or maybe even make a phone call to see what Richie is up too, as having to thrust someone like Shane Christie or Callum Gibbins into battle against the likes of Warburton, Pocock, Hooper, and Louw doesn’t bear thinking about.
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