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May 14, 2018 | by  | in Sports | [ssba]

A Tight Contest for Loose Forwards

The Super Rugby competition is in full swing, and with round 14 coming up this weekend, several teams are tussling for the last playoff spots. However, round 14 also reminds us that it is less than a month until the June internationals, which means Steve Hansen and his selection team are fast approaching the revealing of their 2018 Steinlager Series squad.

Despite New Zealand currently having 4 teams in the top 6 of this year’s competition, it hasn’t been smooth sailing for the most part. The race for top spots has come at a severe cost for New Zealand teams, and perhaps more importantly, the All Blacks’ possible squad. The games this year have been more demanding and physical than any other Super Rugby competitions have in recent memory. The gruelling travel and length of the competition has taken its toll on New Zealand’s top players, putting a massive strain on All Blacks’ selectors as they are faced with putting together a side that will not only be competitive with the French flair in June, but also one that builds a strong core of experienced players going into next year’s World Cup in Japan.

This year, the most difficult choice selectors will have is one that previously would have been a no-brainer. For the best part of a decade, the All Blacks had Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, and Jerome Kaino; a loose forward trio that was an almost certainty every year, and selectors could rely on these three players to perform. Even when McCaw left for retirement, Sam Cane (26) seamlessly slipped in to fill the giant boots left for him and made the open side position his own. However, the battle for the three loose forward positions this year is one that has its doors wide open for several players, due to injuries to Read, and Kaino deciding to call it quits on international rugby and head to Toulouse.
With all the off field incidents surrounding Jerome Kaino last year, his form and playing time suffered, leaving the door wide open for Liam Squire. Coming up through the Highlander system, Squire (27) seemed like a blindside who would be prepared to do the ugly work up front and provide size on the flank of the scrum. Instead what the All Blacks got was a high-flying blindside that could slice through defences and finish strongly on the wing. Unfortunately, Squire (27) has been ruled out of the French series due to a fractured thumb, giving selectors more headaches.

Another previously reliable All Black loose-forward, Ardie Savea (24), has missed valuable minutes with the Hurricanes this year after suffering a rib injury that sidelined him for a month. He looked shaky in his return against the Sunwolves last weekend and admitted to having poor form this season “to be fair, probably”.

Contrary to the bad luck Liam Squire has had this year with the Highlanders, the rise of Tongan-born Shannon Frizell (24) has been a pleasant surprise for a player previously overlooked by Super Rugby clubs in 2016 and 2017. Along with Frizell, Highlanders captain Luke Whitelock (27) has shown excellent form this season, topping the league in tackles made (129), and leading his side to 6 wins from 8 games —proving why the All Blacks’ coaching staff should give him a chance to add to his 1 cap in the black jersey. Another possible inclusion from the Highlanders could also be the exciting openside flanker, Dillon Hunt (23). Hunt toured with the All Blacks in 2017 on their end of year Northern Tour, so he has experience in All Blacks camp, however his lack of experience and age may keep him out a little longer.

Another promising up-and-comer who has been on the All Blacks’ radar for the last 18 months, is Blues loose forward Akira Ioane (22), who sits third in the competition of total tries scored with 7. His powerful bursts from the back of the scrum have been one of the few highlights in what has been a dismal season for the Auckland franchise. His work rate and willingness to do the hard yards is in question, something he will need to focus on if he is to challenge for a spot in the squad.

Over the last few years the All Blacks tend to pick 6 loose forwards for the June series, but perhaps the only certainty in this year’s loose forward selection is the ever-consistent Sam Cane, a reliable and cool-headed flanker who is technically sound and uses his large frame to crunch attackers and turn the ball over.

The date of the squad release is yet to be confirmed but it is no secret that the tightly contested battle for the loose forward trio is in the forefront of both the players’ and coaches’ minds as the French look to upset a vulnerable and injured All Blacks side.
Possible All Blacks loose forwards: Sam Cane, Luke Whitelock, Ardie Savea, Matt Todd,Akira Ioane, Shannon Frizell


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