More and more outside backs these days are equally comfortable on the wing or at fullback.
In recent times, the All Blacks have fielded players of the ilk of Cory Jane and George Bridge. The top current exponent of the 15/14 role is clearly Will Jordan.
Jane is helping coach the Hurricanes, Bridge has flown the coop to France and Jordan is one of the main men for the All Blacks’ back three. The Chiefs have lost Chase Tiatia, who could suit up damned near anywhere in the backline. Now they have Emoni Narawa and Etene Nanai- Seturo who could fulfil that role. But that pair will bow to Shaun Stevenson, a man who has become a fixture in the Chiefs over seven seasons, even if just seven of his 38 starts have come at the back.
The 26-year-old Stevenson, known as ‘Shooter’ by some due to his tryscoring celebrations, is coming off a superb second half of 2022 in which he shone for three teams.
There were two tries in as many games for the Māori All Blacks, five tries for North Harbour in the NPC, and three in two games for the All Blacks XV in the north. That all followed a Super Rugby campaign that was stymied by a knee injury after five games, though not before another brace, this time against the Crusaders in Christchurch.
Such was his form that he was named, as a non-All Black, one of the five players of the year in the Rugby Almanack, which is published in March.
Just where this leaves Stevenson in the national pecking order is hard to know. The All Blacks XV looked to have been chosen on developmental grounds as much as form in some positions. Indeed, Stevenson won a belated call-up and performed.
Rugby News writer Richard Knowler marked him down in other media as a bolter for the Rugby World Cup.
There would have to be an injury or two for that to transpire, but it helps his cause that Jordie Barrett is now seen as a probable midfielder. Were Stevenson to force his way into the All Blacks it would be as a wing/fullback. Jordan, Sevu Reece and now Mark Telea are blocking his way as it stands. But a lot of rugby lies ahead and Stevenson can draw on a wealth of Super Rugby experience, with 16 tries from 67 games over seven campaigns.
His height makes him strong aerially, and he has a big boot (in the Reece Hodge or Chay Fihaki mould) and an eye for the gap. We saw his skills to the fore from July to November 2022.
“It was a bit of a bummer to finish off the second half of Super Rugby Pacific, but I came back all good with game time for the Māori and I was able to build on that with North Harbour and the All Blacks XV. So I was stoked with how the season ended and hopefully set myself up for a good 2023,” he says.
Stevenson admits he was “gutted” at missing the cut for the original All Blacks XV selection, but he made the most of his chances, scoring tries from both the wing and fullback.
“You know yourself when you’re playing good footy that you know where you can get to. It gives you that confidence boost going into the next year to hopefully build on it.”
Taking an educated guess, one would think that Damian McKenzie would have the inside running for the Chiefs No 15 jersey, with either Josh Ioane or Bryn Gatland running the cutter.
That would leave Stevenson to make his mark from the right wing again. The man himself has no qualms about filling whichever role the team demands. He will soak up knowledge from a man who knew a bit about wing play, former All Black Roger Randle, the Chiefs’ attack coach. Randle wants to see tries. That suits Stevenson and should excite Chiefs fans. Nanai- Seturo or Narawa could operate on the other wing.
Back threes are all about combinations, and they did not come more deadly in the NPC than Stevenson, Telea and Tevita Li.
The latter ran in 13 tries in 2022. In all, that back three scored 22 tries, almost half of Harbour’s entire try tally. They were in sync and enjoyed their rugby. It showed.
Stevenson says he can easily make the mindset shift if he is playing wing or fullback.
“On the right wing, you are still in the back field. At fullback, you get a lot more touches and can pop up at first or second receiver. I try and do that on the right wing too. I try and back my skillset like a first five or fullback would do,” he says.
He jokes that mentioning his eight seasons at the Chiefs makes him feel old, but clearly the Chiefs-North Harbour setup for his rugby has worked. He loves the Chiefs culture and can feel the team not being far off the chocolates, having made the 2021 Super Rugby Aotearoa final. They lost to those pesky Crusaders then, but this rivalry is growing legs. In 2022, the Crusaders won the series 2-1 but lost on their home patch, a rare win by a visiting side to the Garden City.
“Last year was disappointing. We had a good record (11-5) but lost that semi 20-7 due to our mistakes. We keep looking back at that. We know we’re not too far off. But the boys are excited to give it a good shake in 2023,” he says.
Don’t worry, he’s practising his goalkicking too. The long-range bomb is a Stevenson special, but he was happy to land a big one against Auckland after his teammates joked that he was a ‘training kicker’, capable of bisecting the uprights only when the pressure was off.
Stevenson’s NZR contract comes to an end this year. His goal is to make the RWC squad, but he and his agent did take the chance to have informal discussions with Wayne Bennett and the start-up NRL Dolphins franchise in Queensland. It’s good to have options. That league interest was at first advanced as a reason for his omission from the All Blacks XV, but he still had a year to run on his contract and was then selected.
Stevenson’s potential first alerted close observers a decade ago when he was in a very good Auckland Grammar School First XV alongside the likes of Rieko Ioane. Stevenson was at the back as Grammar made three 1A finals on the bounce, getting across the line in 2014 at a packed Western Springs – the last time Grammar won the title. Since then, he has gone about his rugby with almost quiet efficiency, despite the odd exuberant try celebration; that is, until the second half of last year, when he again reminded people of his talent. The Chiefs would love to see more of that form, and then Ian Foster will have another name to think hard about.
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