Campbell Burnes sets the scene for the All Blacks No 12 auditions, which will take place from February to June.
Every Super Rugby season there are battles within battles.
They are the enticing match-ups that are often critical to the outcome of a local rivalry or act as an early trial for the All Blacks.
If I was a betting man, I would say that Ian Foster will be looking extra carefully at the form of the No 12s, not just in isolation, of course, but in combinations with their centres.
Not so long ago, the All Blacks were flush in this exacting position. Any one of Ma’a Nonu, Sonny Bill Williams or Ryan Crotty could do a job, and much more, in the black No 12.
That trio has moved on, as has Ngani Laumape, which is a crying shame, and midfield is one of the selection conundrums now facing Foster and the brains trust.
In 2021, the Chiefs duo of Quinn Tupaea and Anton Lienert-Brown filled the role, as did Crusader David Havili. All had their moments, though the latter fell away towards the end of the Test season.
Let us run the rule over the candidates.
The Blues missed an injured TJ Faiane during the 2021 Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign. He has now flown the coop, so all the scrutiny falls on league convert Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. Leon MacDonald has signalled that the former Warriors captain will make his way back to the 15-man code at second five. It would have been helpful if he had played a full NPC with Auckland to feel his way back into this position. That was not to be, but RTS will be a penetrator more than a distributor, at least at first, and he should hook swiftly into his work outside Beauden Barrett and inside Rieko Ioane. A big season with the Blues could be enough to catapult him into the All Blacks, given that no one has yet nailed down that berth.
The Chiefs will likely use Tupaea at 12 and Lienert-Brown at 13. That will work well for them, and ALB is possibly better utilised at centre. But here’s the nub. Tupaea, despite all his progress for the All Blacks last season, especially in straightening the attack and penetrating in the middle, is a better centre than he is a second five. He just looks more natural at 13 rather than in one. So he and ALB should be watched closely, both individually and as a combination. They may even swap on occasion.
Further down the island, the Hurricanes will miss the power and prolific tryscoring punch of Laumape, who crossed no less than 49 times in his 85 games. You could build an entire game plan around his thrust, as the All Blacks did with Nonu.
So here’s the moment for Peter Umaga-Jensen to step out of the Laumape/Vince Aso shadow. He has survived off scraps at centre or off the bench as a Hurricane. If he can bottle his NPC form, where he was the best No 12 on show, he can again win promotion, as he did in 2020.
David Havili is one of the most versatile and skilled footballers in the country. Alas, just where he plays will be dictated by the form, fitness and availability of others. Will Jordan looks to have secured the Crusaders No 15 jersey, and rightly so given his brilliance and the ridiculous outside back depth. Braydon Ennor has plenty to prove at centre and Jack Goodhue is due back in April/May to stake his claim after a year on the sidelines.
Richie Mo’unga will be having a few weeks off at the start of Super Rugby Pacific, and Havili may be the man to again take one for the team at 10. Just when he gets to play at 12 is moot.
It all leads to several questions and few answers.
Let the No 12 auditions begin.
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