The one position that will have the All Blacks selectors watching their Super Rugby closely at the moment is that of blindside flanker.
Since Jerome Kaino played that enforcer’s role so well for the All Blacks, there has been no one this year who has stepped up and said: “I can be that man.”
Liam Squire has been the preferred option whenever he has been free of injury worries. But he has had on-going issues this year and while close to a return, he has some important time to make up if he is to retain his role.
It doesn’t help either that from a development and long-term point of view he has signalled that the Rugby World Cup will be the end of his time in the New Zealand game.
To go the World Cup as the No.1 choice for the role he has to be the best player in New Zealand in that position. And because of his injuries he hasn’t been able to claim that.
As a result in his absence a number of players have put their hands up and you would have to say that, after an outstanding game for the Chiefs against the Highlanders, Luke Jacobson has added his name to the list.
One swallow doesn’t make a summer but after that Dunedin effort Jacobson must surely now be on the radar. He must continue to back that performance up, though, and string strong efforts together.
There are a number of contenders.
Vaea Fifita has shown some sensational form for the Hurricanes and he’s there or thereabouts. That’s not to forget Shannon Frizell, either; he’s had some good carries and is a strong player.
I think that position will be one of the biggest areas that Steve Hansen and Co. will be looking at.
Another consideration, just to throw it out there, could Akira Ioane start on the blindside. Are No. 6 and 8 transferable? Can Kieran Read transition to blindside in order to accommodate Ioane? You wouldn’t rule that out completely. It may be an option.
Also, another option is playing both Matt Todd and Ardie Savea as left and right flankers because Savea is in the form of his life. He’s undeniably one of the best forwards in Super Rugby; whether he’s on the openside or the blindside, it’s worth the brains trust of the All Blacks considering.
The concept is not new to the All Blacks: look at Kel Tremain and Waka Nathan, John Graham and Tremain, Graham Mourie and Leicester Rutledge, and Josh Kronfeld and Michael Jones, and look at Australia with David Pocock and Michael Hooper.
Even the role of the 6-8 is not that different. Yes, controlling the ball at the base of the scrum is a bit of an art but having two No. 8s you know one can definitely play 6.
I had the feeling there were some bad-tempered referees in action at the weekend. The number of cards being issued was well up on normal and there was a no-nonsense approach at the scrum, and other areas of the game. You can’t help but think there has been some sort of edict that has gone out to referees about tidying the scrums up.
Discipline is everything. And at the same time some of the infringements by the Blues in their loss to the Brumbies were silly on their part. You have got to have your head on and be on the edge and up for it, and it looked like they just were not there.
As I’ve said before, I’m an advocate of less policing of the scrum. Let the game flow. If you want to look for a penalty at scrum time you will find one every time. It shouldn’t dictate the outcome of the game. I’ve always been an advocate for referees looking at the ball come out of the scrum and then following the ball.
Sometimes you just have to turn a blind eye to some of the dark arts being applied up front. If there’s anything untoward those guys will sort it out.
Yet in saying all that there was still some fantastic rugby played over the weekend, and some average rugby. But the Sharks showed everyone that if you come to town and put your heart and soul into it then the Crusaders are actually vulnerable. In saying that, the Crusaders didn’t play to their normal level and they’ll take the draw and run I suppose.
But they’ll go back to the drawing board. It wasn’t how you wanted to celebrate Kieran Read’s 150th but a draw is always better than a loss.
The Highlanders and Chiefs played out another draw and I don’t know how the Highlanders lost that one. They let the Chiefs back in the game but at the same time you would have to say the Chiefs showed some grit; they showed their staying power and stuck it out to the end, and in a season where not a lot has gone right for them their coaches would have been pleased to see that.