Written by Max Sharp.
In the fourth article discussing the highs and lows of individual player performances during the 2022 international season, the All Blacks' loose forwards will be next on the table, to be dissected with the scalpel.
We saw six players play minutes in the 6 jersey, four players get time in the 7 jersey and five players accumulate them at 8, making for a very interesting depth chart across all three of the loose forward positions; particularly as Quinn Tupaea, a centre, held a share of the 7 chart until being ruled out of the 2023 Rugby World Cup due to injury.
Aside from a few blunders, there's plenty of good regarding the loose forwards for us to get into!
The All Blacks' 2020-22 Blindside Flanker Depth Chart.
Blindside Flanker Season Reviews
Shannon Frizell (372 minutes played) - 7/10
With the 6 Depth Chart a complete mess, at least Foster settled on Frizell, on the occasions that Brodie Retallick was absent at lock. Though Scott Barrett appears to be Foster's first-choice in the position, Frizell played more minutes than Barrett in the jersey for 2022; ending Akira Ioane's monopoly over the jersey.
As Frizell played just 4 tests due to a court case in 2021; one must consider the possibility that Frizell would lead this depth chart, had it not been for the trial. Joe Schmidt's influence, that lead to Frizell's re-call from injury at test level, is clearly centred around taking Frizell to the point of a similar depth chart share to Ioane; as Frizell shares similarities to Barrett, their true first-choice.
At 1.95m and 108kg, Frizell is a similar size to the 1.97m and 111kg Barrett. With the clear need to identify good lineout jumpers, this has been a job well-done.
Akira Ioane (330 minutes played) - 4/10
A barnstorming start to the 2022 season saw Ioane as one of few All Blacks to play well against Ireland, as he ran 73m, beat 6 defenders, made 1 clean break, scored his first test try and made 11 tackles in Wellington. Antagonistic off-field comments from former All Black, Justin Marshall, appeared to have a huge psychological impact on Ioane though, as he never reached that same form again in 2022.
Akira Ioane, pictured training for the Blues in 2021, has set the stage for a return to form in 2023. Photo: Max Sharp.
A shocker against South Africa (with just 4 carries and poor ruck clearances) saw Ioane then accumulate four of his 6 total test caps as a substitute; while he was able to shine more in a start against Australia, his showing against Scotland with 4/7 tackles was pathetic. Ioane did not play against England after the Scotland test.
The clear-cut fan pessimism towards Ioane has made an obvious impact on his mental health, causing performances to be affected and I wish Ioane a relaxing off-season so that he can return to form.
Luke Jacobson (did not play) - No rating
After earning test caps at both 6 and 8 during the 2021 season, Ian Foster could have possibly asked Jacobson to settle on one of the two jerseys during Super Rugby. After shifting from 6, to 7, to 8, during Super Rugby though, Jacobson paid the price for not specialising and did not earn a test cap this season. Though he was called in as injury cover for the Bledisloe Cup, Jacobson will be horribly disappointed not to take the field, especially after being trusted to start at 8 against South Africa just one year ago.
While Jacobson is still a hard-working natural talent, time is now ticking. He's 25, with just 12 test caps. As the likes of Marino Mikaele-Tu'u, Christian Lio-Willie, both All Blacks XV teammates of Jacobson and Peter Lakai, Duane Monkley Medal nominee, are all breathing down the necks of the incumbents, those who predicted Jacobson to be a future All Black captain, have likely got it wrong.
The All Blacks' 2020-22 Openside Flanker Depth Chart.
Openside Flanker Season Reviews
Sam Cane (592 minutes played) - 6/10
Though some wish to think otherwise, Cane is a good captain, that's the case thanks to him also being a good man. He is however, not the right man to lead the All Blacks. Everyone knows Cane will turn up to be an accurate tackler, but it isn't ideal to see a captain subbed off in six of his nine tests for 2022; particularly considering these included the series decider against Ireland and a second-ever loss to Argentina.
Sam Cane looks ahead to the crowd at Sky Stadium, Wellington. Photo: Max Sharp.
Cane definitely put some numbers up for the season, with 99 tackles in total; this was 12% of the entire team's amount for the year, at the time Cane was ruled out for the season. He also accumulated 45 passes, 1 try off just 82 metres was solid too. 3 turnovers however, seriously raises questions.
We had a case of solid rather than spectacular from Cane. Can captaincy realistically go to a man performing slightly above average, rather than someone performing outstandingly?
Dalton Papali'i (478 minutes played) - 8/10
Initially found minutes hard to come by aside from a 59-minute start at blindside, but was well and truly in form during the end-of-year tour, finishing the season off with five starts and five tests as a replacement.
While the 6 experiment well and truly failed, Papali'i appears to have cemented his place as the only player the selectors genuinely trust to back up Cane at 7; Ardie Savea is also able to play there, a third-choice 7 did not receive test minutes in 2022.
Standout moments for Papali'i this season included being voted as the All Blacks' Most-Improved performer by The Black Jersey followers on Instagram, his intercept try against England and a Player of the Match performance against Scotland that featured 14 tackles and 2 turnovers. A year to remember.
Billy Harmon (did not play) - No rating
After an outstanding return from injury in Super Rugby, while also becoming the clear-cut best openside in the Bunnings NPC for 2022, Harmon's withdrawal from the All Blacks XV, to join the All Blacks, would have been bittersweet.
Billy Harmon practices the lineout for Canterbury ahead of the 2022 Bunnings NPC Grand Final. Photo: Max Sharp.
As a proper openside with a massive work ethic on defence and some entertaining carrying always an option, this was a good call-up to see. While Harmon has yet to be capped, this proves the 27-year-old is not far away at all.
The All Blacks' 2020-22 Number 8 Depth Chart.
Number 8 Season Reviews
Ardie Savea (837 minutes played) - 10/10
The true World Rugby Player of the Year in the mens' division for 15s. Maybe World Rugby feel they awarded this trophy to a Kiwi too many times in the 2010s; leading them to diversify the nationality of winners today, with the All Blacks now ranked third in the world.
Ardie Savea (right) stretches his core ahead of performing the haka. Photo: Max Sharp.
Savea, 29, a veteran of 70 tests, is my test-level MVP for 2022 after he completed the season with a stat chart of 816 minutes played, 5 tries, 432 metres run, 29 defenders beaten and 2 clean breaks off 106 carries, 91 passes, 16 offloads, 111/114 tackles and a huge total of 12 turnovers.
Hats off to this colossal figure in the game, who is one more season of top form away, from overtaking Kieran Read as the All Blacks' greatest-ever number 8. His 11 test matches are well and truly worthy of a good break with family.
Hoskins Sotutu (151 minutes played) - 5/10
There's definitely a few mixed emotions to be had with Sotutu's year in black. Those with eagle eyes will now notice that four of the five jerseys in the All Blacks' spine, have a player from the Blues, as the second-choice for their specific jersey. Sotutu ranks 2nd on the Number 8 Depth Chart, with Finlay Christie 2nd on the Halfback Depth Chart, while Beauden Barrett is now 2nd on the Depth Chart for both the 10 and the 15 jersey.
Sotutu could have definitely done with more game time though, his two matches against Australia included a start in Melbourne, though he wasn't flash against Japan aside from scoring his second test try; rust from too much time training was showing, especially as he wasn't too involved in 7 minutes against England.
Sotutu's deserved place in the 2023 Rugby World Cup is assured due to his cohesion with fellow second-choice spine members at club level, as well as share of the 8 Depth Chart. However, just 151 minutes of test rugby in a calendar year, could set Sotutu up for failure should Savea be ruled out injured.
Pita Gus Sowakula (27 minutes played) - No rating
After Sowakula had a bad ending to an otherwise phenomenal Super Rugby season, my bets were with him finally representing Fiji at test level. Although Marino Mikaele-Tu'u and Christian Lio-Willie appear to be the next cab off the rank when it comes to form in the selectors' eyes, Shannon Frizell's shortage of game time saw Sowakula called up instead.
Pita Gus Sowakula steals lineout ball off Ireland's James Ryan during his test debut at Eden Park. Photo: Max Sharp.
Sowakula's well-deserved test debut saw a great lineout steal and a try, though alleged discipline issues off-field then saw Sowakula dropped from the team as a scapegoat for the Ireland series, after just 27 minutes of test rugby. If the selectors were noticing off-field discipline issues, then why did they select him for the matches in the first place? If these were addressed, leading to Sowakula making the team without playing, Fiji would have remained able to pick him.
The optimist in me saw Sowakula's selection as a possible method to man-mark single-man Ireland pods, a smart selection move from Ian Foster. The selection of Sowakula, was, however, a disgusting call that will now see Fiji unable to pick him for the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Sowakula's selection, regardless of allegations, has done Fiji dirty.
Loose Forwards Season Rating: 7/10