Updated: Jan 24
Written by Max Sharp.
What a brilliant year for the All Blacks loose forwards! The players who managed to earn selection in 2021 managed to fend off some strong competition for their places, New Zealand has very strong depth in these three jerseys right now.
The depth is especially present at blindside flanker and number 8, where competition is fierce. In recent years, Brad Shields, Jordan Taufua, Luke Whitelock, Dillon Hunt, as well as a variety of other athletes, have made a genuine struggle for the black jersey, despite their world-class status.
The All Blacks' Blindside Flanker Depth Chart from 2020-21.
While Akira Ioane and Shannon Frizell could probably be classed as the only specialist blindsides in the All Blacks right now, the blindside depth chart still looks strong.
Although Frizell, a very charismatic character off the field, started in all four of his test appearances for 2020, cementing himself as the first-choice for the position, he only played four tests in 2021, despite a far bigger test schedule. The most telling part of this, was perhaps that Frizell was off the bench for three of his four tests in 2021. Frizell has the strength and also the size needed to turn into a world-class player, but does not appear to have the same aggression at rucks; wether he be attempting a clean out or turnover, as he does with ball-in-hand. At 6'5 though, he does offer some balance to the All Blacks' lineout. Whether or not he regains his position as the first-choice 6, he will continue to produce stellar performances with ball-in-hand.
Max Sharp meeting Shannon Frizell after the Highlanders defeated the Crusaders in 2021.
Ioane has leapfrogged Frizell in the pecking order, likely due to his improvement in discipline over recent seasons. Ioane has always had a powerful running game, but looks to be more focused on what is best for his team, he was even happy enough to provide impact off the bench for the Blues in 2021, so that Tom Robinson could fill in as captain for the injured Patrick Tuipulotu. Although he has done so far later in his career than many pundits claimed, Ioane has genuinely began to fulfill the potential that he inherited from his parents, both of whom played tests.
Although Ardie Savea, Luke Jacobson and Ethan Blackadder have played more minutes in different jerseys to the 6 jersey, they are all easily capable of performing at test level at blindside flanker. There is little for fans to worry about if Ioane, the first-choice in Foster's eyes, succumbs to injury.
The All Blacks' Openside Flanker Depth Chart from 2020-21.
Sam Cane, named as captain by Ian Foster in 2020, shocked fans on April Fools' Day when he said his need for pectoral muscle surgery was not a prank. When he returned from injury, a casual observer may well have noticed his shortness of match fitness. His ongoing injury struggles, having suffered many concussions in his career, to go with a fractured neck in 2018, plus now this torn pectoral muscle, must ask the question about how much longer his international career will be able to last. Although Cane only featured in three tests during 2021, he did noticeably make the most tackles of any All Black against France.
Rather than award game time at openside to Ardie Savea, who began his professional career in the 7 jersey, Foster elected to give Dalton Papali'i the bonus minutes at 7, rather than minutes at 8 for Hoskins Sotutu and Luke Jacobson. Papali'i is now very close to Cane on the openside depth chart, his long time waiting in the wings as second-fiddle has finally paid off. Papali'i was able to score 5 tries from 8 tests in 2021, while his turnover technique is looking near-perfect. He is still 24 years old and broke the record for most tackles made by an All Black in a test match, managing 28 against Ireland. Papali'i has given Foster a good return on investment and will undoubtedly become an even better player.
Dalton Papali'i is tackled by Devan Flanders. Photo: Max Sharp.
Crusaders fans will no doubt prefer Ethan Blackadder to have the lions' share of the minutes at openside however. After missing the bulk of 2020 with injury, the former specialist number 8 made the 6 jersey his home in Super Rugby, but played more minutes at 7, this has come from his exceptional turnover rate, while fans can't get enough of his offloading. The bolter has been a late bloomer, much like his father Todd. Both Blackadders ended up debuting for the All Blacks at 26 years old, just don't be surprised to see Ethan Blackadder out-cap his father if he can stay injury-free.
The All Blacks' Number 8 Depth Chart from 2020-21.
Ardie Savea, who has played almost half of all available minutes at number 8 since Foster's term as coach began, is utterly indisposable for the All Blacks at this point of his career. He has played 1138 minutes of test rugby since the start of the decade, third only to Jordie Barrett and Rieko Ioane, while he has also become the only All Black to debut in the 2010's to win the "All Black of the Year" trophy twice; he was named the Kelvin R Tremain Memorial Player of the Year for 2019, after fewer than 50 tests. Savea reached that milestone in 2021, while he crossed the line for four tries that year too. His most memorable achievement was being named All Black captain for the first time, leading the team for four tests. The best rugby player in the world by a long distance, Savea knows when and when not to compete for the ball at rucks, while he brings wrecking-ball carrying off the base of scrums, despite being a mere 100kg.
Ardie Savea at halftime during a Crusaders vs Hurricanes clash, 2019. Photo: Max Sharp.
Luke Jacobson, who withdrew from the 2019 Rugby World Cup after the delayed onset of concussion symptoms, finally made his comeback at test level after a long injury struggle. Tipped by Waikato fans as a future All Black captain, the 24-year-old Cambridge High School alumni featured in 10 tests for 2021, 6 of which were starts, while he was able to score 5 tries for the season. Although he'd have to be lifted by both locks in a lineout, Jacobson would be the most sensible option as loose forward cover off the bench, being able to cover all three positions, while he offers a classic grafter-type number 8's carrying.
Although Hoskins Sotutu has lost ground in the All Blacks since Jacobson's return from injury, only playing five tests in 2021, he will likely get over his second-year syndrome. A dynamic runner, who formerly played as a first-five, is a nightmare for any prop trying to safeguard the breakdown. Sotutu's kicking game still exists as well, it came in handy off the bench in the dying moments against South Africa. His final outing of the season, against Italy, also saw him score his first test try. The 23-year-old's confidence will return and he will no doubt be in the 2023 Rugby World Cup squad, following in his father Waisake's footsteps; Waisake Sotutu turned out for Fiji in the 1999 Rugby World Cup.
The loose forwards all had admirable seasons in 2021. Besides Marino Mikaele-Tu'u (uncapped) replacing his Highlanders teammate, Frizell, in the squad, the All Blacks' loose forwards setup is unlikely to change until the conclusion of the 2023 Rugby World Cup. All that is left for Ian Foster to do, is pick a loose forward trio that will be able to balance the All Blacks' lineout.
Loose Forwards Grade for 2021: A-