A fresh spate of injuries over the weekend has moved the loose forward unit in to an area of major concern for the All Blacks heading in to the Lions series. Liam Squire was hitting his straps but he’s now joined Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino in the hospital ward, putting a severe strain on the All Blacks blindside/number 8 depth. Let’s run the rule over the contenders for each position, starting at openside.
Ardie Savea needs to be the man wearing the All Blacks number 7 jersey. Sam Cane is the incumbent here and seems to be the chosen man when it comes to openside flanker. The thought process seems to be that Ardie is better served as an impact player, running hard at tired legs late in the game. It’s an argument that has merits, but wasn’t the same argument being made about a certain Beauden Barrett last year, that he was better suited as an impact player with Aaron Cruden or Lima Sopoaga starting??? One IRB World Player of the Year later and I think it’s safe to say that Beaudy has earned his stripes in the number 10 jersey. Why can’t we expect Ardie to do the same, when he does it week in and week out for the Hurricanes. Just check out his metrics and see how streets ahead he is from the other 7’s right now. That’s exactly the reason that Rugby Boss ranked him number 1 in our season rankings, he has such a gap in value over his rivals at the position.
Savea is tops in almost every statistical category, and often by a very wide margin. The conventional wisdom is that Sam Cane is the workhorse that lays the platform, tackling hard and effecting turnovers. Well Ardie is almost doubling him in turnovers won per minute played, he also has a higher tackling percentage at 94%, and he’s conceding less penalties. His turnover to penalty ratio is a healthy 1.5 compared to 0.7 for Cane. He is conceding more turnovers than Cane, but he’s more than making up for that with his offensive output. He’s an absolute beast, and he needs to be fed the ball early and often for the All Blacks to help tame that Lions forward pack.
You can throw a blanket over the rest of the openside contenders. Matt Todd has never let the All Blacks down, but Cane probably deserves the reserve spot to prove once again what he’s capable of.
Number 8’s and 6’s are kind of interchangeable but I’ve tried to keep them in their primary position here, but each of them could easily make the transition from the back to the side of the scrum or vice versa.
Kieran Reads 2017 Super Rugby but short but boy, was it sweet. It’s hard to infer too much from just 125 minutes of action, and the 3 tries he scored are an anomaly. But he was eating up metres (56m/80mins), and beating defenders at will (4.5/80mins). Oh, and he was doing the things that number 8’s are meant to do, like winning lineouts and tackling hard (10% success rate).
The big question now is will he be fit in time, and if he isn’t, what do the All Blacks do? There will probably be a case made for playing Ardie at number 8 as he has been lately for the Hurricanes, but I say leave him at his best position of 7.
You can almost throw a blanket over the rest of the contenders, but I would give Steven Luatua a slight edge despite the fact he is Bristol-bound at the end f the season. He has an edge over the other in terms of test experience and a slight edge in his performance on the park s far this Super Rugby season in an often struggling Blues pack.
Jerome Kaino is the incumbent here, and I’m sure the All Black selectors would love to slot him in for his experience and stability, especially if they bring in Savea and Read is potentially compromised. But I think at 34 years of age we might be seeing the end of Kaino. He’s signed until the end of 2018 but I’m not sure he’ll hold his All Blacks place until then. He’s stats are certainly on the decline (although experienced All Blacks do know how to pace themselves during Super Rugby), and the fact he’s undergoing knee surgery has to be a real concern.
Elliot Dixon got first crack behind Kaino last year but didn’t really grasp his opportunities at test level. His Highlanders teammate Liam Squire did and by the end of the season had superseded Dixon, a trend which has continued in to this Super Rugby season. Squire hasn’t been on the field an awful lot (and is now out 6 weeks with a broken thumb), but when he has, he is certainly bossing most of the attacking categories. On the negative side, he is turning the ball over and conceding penalties at a reasonable clip too.
Brad Shields is a man who isn’t talked about a lot, but would certainly not disgrace the All Blacks jersey. He’s a former NZ under 20, and at 1.93m is an exceptional line out option who could help fill that void were Read out.
Rugby Boss Prediction for All Blacks versus Lions series:
Best case scenario (all players fit):
Number 8: Kieran Read
Openside Flanker: Ardie Savea
Blindside Flanker: Jerome Kaino
Reserves: Sam Cane, Liam Squire
Worst case scenario (Read, Squire, and Kaino out injured):
Number 8: Steven Luatua
Openside Flanker: Ardie Savea
Blindside Flanker: Elliot Dixon
Reserves: Sam Cane, Brad Shields
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