Injury to Kieran Read has sent alarm bells ringing throughout New Zealand, as the British and Irish Lions Test Series is almost upon them. However, New Zealand Rugby, the All Blacks and Steve Hansen need to look way beyond the Lions Tour and start the search for the next All Blacks number eight.
One of the last super kiwi legends, Kieran Read, may not be far from his international Test swansong. Yes, it’s true that Read is only 31 years old (in October he will blow out 32 candles) and the All Blacks captain is ageing relatively well, with some class-act games in the 12 months. However it is time for New Zealand Rugby (NZR) to start working on their plan B–not only for the British and Irish Lions matches but for the future as well.
The Search for the Next All Blacks Number Eight
Read is one of a kind type of player, strong ball carrier, a superb leader, a relentless tackler and one of the All Blacks’ most trustworthy players. In the last Autumn Internationals, Read played four of the five games (missed Italy in Rome) and landed fifty tackles and five turnovers, which ‘destroys’ the false idea that Read isn’t one of the strongest defenders on the team.
But we can’t escape time and Read will one day retire from the International scene, so it’s normal to start planning for the future. So it’s 2017, the British and Irish Lions are coming to town and the All Blacks must conceive a cunning plan to stop the likes of Jared Payne, Liam Williams, George North, Owen Farrell or Jack Nowell from attacking the wider channels.
— Super Rugby (@SuperRugbyNZ) May 4, 2017
‘What About Savea?’
Let’s think for a moment that Kaino and Read will definitely miss the first game, who would you pick for the spots? There are a lot of players in contention for the flanker seat like Elliot Dixon, Matt Todd, Brad Shields, Blake Gibson (OPTA shows a 93% of success in the tackling department this season) or Tom Sanders. Steve Hansen will give the number seven jersey to Sam Cane so that leaves the number six vacant. Well one could say: “Why not relocate Cane at six, and just pick Ardie Savea at seven?”.
It’s a good option but I have other ideas on the matter, so follow my line of thought. Savea got bigger and stronger in 2017, excelling as a ball carrier or an absolute turnover monster, reigning supreme at the scrum department (sometimes shifting to number 8) as well as being one of the leaders on the Hurricanes team. But LWOR ask “why not try to pick Savea for number 8?”
He still lacks the mental coolness that Kieran has, like thinking and executing a strategy on those tight moments. Nonetheless, the Hurricanes flanker can change the pace of the game with his physical and technical ability, which can break a ‘heavier’ type of team, especially the Northern Hemisphere ones.
Savea Can Throw a Spanner in Lions Plans
To surpass third rowers like Sean O’Brien, Billy Vunipola, Sam Warburton or CJ Stander, you must have someone who can ‘create’ something from nothing, who can speed up in close contact and throw a spanner into Warren Gatland’s plans. Furthermore, Savea covers the field brilliantly, is an ‘all-court’ type of player and has a unique physicality that the All Blacks need.
One can call for Liam Squire to be the new number 8, as he has proven useful and one of the strongest Highlanders of the two last seasons. Not as exciting a player as Savea, he likes to play a more stable and controlled type of game, but Squire certainly doesn’t let the team down.
Still, in the battle between Squire and Savea, the latter comes out on top as he gets more involved in the attacking line, can cause disruption to the opposition defence and has a special kind of speed making it tricky to tackle him.
One credible option for the spot and one that could scupper Savea’s chances, would be Steven Luatua. Coincidentally, the Blues Number 8 chose to leave the NZR at the end of Super Rugby season, so he might not even be part of the training squad for the Lions series. If the coaches decide to omit Luatua, it boosts Savea’s dream to become the new All Blacks number eight–not only for the Lions games, but for the longterm future.
The Vacant Six jersey
So mixing up Cane at openside and Savea at number 8, it leaves the blindside flanker spot free… who deserves that? Some will argue Brad Shields to be a top contender for it, as he made quite an impact last season for the Hurricanes. Shields goes very well with ball in hand–220 meters in Super Rugby). A steady hand who doesn’t disappoint on defence and a complete lineout catcher. Although, this season Shields has made some mistakes around the ruck area or in some open play instances, made decisions that have compromised the whole team strategy.
From here you can go to Matt Todd, Elliot Dixon (tough guy and a harsh tackler) or even Blake Gibson (the Blues kid has delivered some serious performances) for the six jersey.
But Todd deserves an opportunity and it should catch Steve Hansen’s eye. The revival of the Crusaders (they didn’t lose any Super game until now) is thanks to players like Todd, Crotty, Franks or even an impressive Jordan Taufua–can the 25 year old Samoan-born make it to the Maori All Blacks this season?–as the spine of the Christchurch team this season.
Gibson should get a call-up to the Maori All Blacks in 2017, as he is making quite an effort for the Auckland Blues. The Super Rugby OPTA doesn’t lie when it shows a superb 93% tackle success, as well a good contribution on the attack (remember in 2016 the try he scored against the Highlanders, mauling Ben Smith along the way).
Many Contenders for All Blacks Number Eight Jersey
There are a lot of other contenders for the Number 8 or blindside flanker places like Akira Ioane [one of the pleasant surprises in the Blues team this season], Scott Barrett [played against the Western Force at six and managed to grab a try and fifteen tackles] or Whetu Douglas.
The All Blacks and Steve Hansen’s multiple choices are an ‘wonderful type of headache’ to have, and one which most head coaches would want every day. Ardie Savea will play again at number 8 against the Stormers tonight, and can show us if he is ready to take the spot as the commander of the pack.
The Hurricanes play the Stormers at Westpac Stadium at 7:35pm (NZT).
New LWOR Poll Question:
“Main photo credit”