first popped up on the All Blacks’ radar in 2014 despite the fact he wasn’t a regular starter for the Chiefs.
Head coach Steve Hansen liked the rugged nature of Squire. He was one of those rare breed of athletes who had a big frame yet was raw-boned with it, and while he was happy crunching the ball up the middle, he had an impressive turn of pace on the occasions he could cut loose.
He also had a back story that was a little different. Schooled in Palmerston North, Squire drifted in his late teens.
He gave up club footy and he’s honest enough to admit that he flirted with a bad life. Rugby wasn’t even in his head until the opportunity to shift to Tasman do some farm work came up.
Once he was in the South Island, he was lured back to rugby, more to find some friends and to integrate than with any serious ambition to make the big time.
At 1.96m and 113kg, though, he couldn’t help but be noticed and from club rugby, he hopped straight into the Tasman team and was picked in the Chiefs squad in 2014.
It was a meteoric rise and as a result, Squire’s game felt like it was genuine, unhindered and loaded with incredible potential. He played on instinct and without some of the reticence those players who have been exposed to elite coaching from an early age often have.
HE WAS IMPOSING HIMSELF. HIS TACKLING WAS VERY DOMINANT AND HE HAS GOT AN X-FACTOR WHEN IT COMES TO BALL CARRYING. HE’S EXTREMELY QUICK FOR A FORWARD AND HAS A HIGH WORK RATE.’ STEVE HANSEN
That naturalness was what Hansen liked. There was nothing contrived or manufactured about Squire. He was a throwback to a forgotten age when men kind of walked off the farm onto the footy field and never realised they had.
Squire was making strong cameo appearances but at the end of 2015 he needed more game time. The Chiefs had been a good move for him, but he also wanted to head back to the South Island.
That opportunity handily popped up when Nasi Manu left the Highlanders and Squire was off to Dunedin where he would fall under the tutelage of former All Blacks loose forward, Jamie Joseph.
It all came together for Squire at that point. The convergence of him playing more, being in his happy place where he was receiving sage advice as part of a team that wanted to use his strengths, saw him win All Blacks selection in June 2016.
“He’s really impressed us. Before he had a bit of a break there with injury he was in outstanding form physically,” Hansen said in explaining why Squire had made the grade. “He was imposing himself. His tackling was very dominant and he has got an X-factor when it comes to ball carrying. He’s extremely quick for a forward and has a high work rate.”
Squire had the golden ticket. He possessed many things the All Blacks coaches liked, but one thing in particular set him apart.
Squire has a genuine edge to his game. He is tough and uncompromising and there emanates from him a desire to be involved. He has a way of carrying himself that says he’s confident about his physicality.
Call it the ability to intimidate, but it doesn’t really matter the title, he’s got what every coach wants and that’s the undefinable art of being confrontational.
When he carries the ball, he goes straight and hard. When he tackles, he accelerates into the collision and takes it on his terms. There is nothing half-baked about him. There is no sense of him holding anything back and he gives the impression that he loves that side of business.
If the ball never made out it to the backs, Squire would be quite content pitting himself against all the big men on the field, and that’s probably why his eyes light up when that very scenario is presented to him.
Is it true that he relishes the confrontation? He has a little chuckle at that, dipping his head towards his folded arms. There is a bit of a pause and then he gives his answer. “Yeah... it gets you excited when you get into that physical battle. I guess it is something I have always had in my game.
“When you have three older brothers you have to stand up for yourself. I am the youngest of four and I guess growing up on the farm it was like that. It was good, I enjoyed it.”
And that right there is why he’s the chosen one. All the others who auditioned to replace Kaino could tick every box bar one. They have all had the size, the bulk and power and to look threatening. They have enough leg drive to knock men backwards. They have the height to be lineout options and they have the athleticism and mobility to get around the park. And of course, in New Zealand, they have all the ball skills of a first-five.
But the missing part – and this has been consistent in Vito, Messam and Luatua – is that mentality to impose themselves and damage opponents. Wearing No 6 in a test comes with certain expectations: that the jersey’s occupant will be tough, rugged, physical, relentless and destructive.
WHEN YOU HAVE THREE OLDER BROTHERS YOU HAVE TO STAND UP FOR YOURSELF. I AM THE YOUNGEST OF FOUR AND I GUESS GROWING UP ON THE FARM IT WAS LIKE THAT.’ LIAM SQUIRE
WHAT I HAVE DELIVERED IS ACTUALLY WHAT MY CAREER HAS SHOWN – GOOD IN PATCHES BUT NOW I WANT TO FOCUS AND MAKE SURE EVERY TIME I GET A CHANCE OUT THERE I AM CLEAR – IT IS JUST TACKLE HARD, RUN HARD AND IF YOU GET THE CHANCE – CLEAN SOME GUYS OUT.’ VICTOR VITO
The position demands a certain type of character: it is a place for genuine big men. Not so much in the purely physical sense, although that is a major requirement, but in the mental stakes.
Test football is about inflicting carnage in the contact zones and no one is expected to do more in that area than the blindside. It’s not a skill, however, that always comes easily or naturally.
Players such as Jerry Collins, a regular All Black between 2003 and 2007, made the business of intimidation look easy. Collins had the edge, the warrior spirit... the mongrel. He lived for the collision and the chance to hit hard.
That was his game and he could happily do it for 80 minutes. Collins could bend and buckle anyone, even Schalk Burger.
His successor, Kaino, has learned the same art but it took him a while. It wasn’t that he didn’t have the capacity to hit hard, he didn’t have the ability to deliver it consistently.
In his early career Kaino wasn’t the focused, disciplined athlete he is now and his game would fluctuate. But by 2010 he had sorted a few things out in his life, improved his fitness, sharpened his desire and by the end of that year he was being referred to as a world class player by All Blacks coach Graham Henry.
But the next generation of blindsides haven’t been able to match up in the physical stakes. Vito emerged in 2008 as one of the most exciting athletes in years.
He dominated the Wellington Sevens and came into Super Rugby as a 112kg, super quick loose forward who could, seriously, play on the wing.
He was an incredible player except for one major flaw – there was no ferocity to his impact. He didn’t have the desire or inclination to run over the top of defenders. He didn’t line ball carriers up and chop them in half.
It just wasn’t in his game and from winning his first cap in 2010, Vito spent the next five years bouncing in out of the squad, sometimes playing off the bench and occasionally winning the odd start.
It reached the point in 2014 where he was told, more or less, by the coaching staff that he had one last test in which to prove he could deliver the edge they were after. It was a message that Vito knew had to be delivered and acted upon because he’d gone too long into his career without being able to provide the physicality the role demanded.
“What I have delivered is actually what my career has shown – good in patches but now I want to focus and make sure every time I get a chance out there I am clear – it is just tackle hard, run hard and if you get the chance – clean some guys out.
“I have to declutter my mind. I have had a problem with that in the past – sometimes people in the past have said you are intellectual blah, blah, blah... but that can work against you as well in a team like this where all they expect of you is that you will do one job.”
As hard as he tried, Vito never quite proved he had enough of the nasties. He got better at enforcing his will on a test but not to the extent he was ever a contender to become the All Blacks’ regular No 6.
He realised as much himself and decided to make 2016 his last season in New Zealand – heading to France on a huge contract.
Messam had heart, commitment, desire and all the qualities to be a good blindside.
But as a smaller, but not small athlete who had cut his teeth on the sevens circuit, Messam, for one reason or another, never quite managed to be the imposing, dominating figure the All Blacks hoped for.
He had other qualities, speed, vision and a touch of genius on the ball, but he wasn’t the same bruising force as the man he succeeded.
Luatua went a long way towards having everyone believe he was going to be the heir to the blindside throne.
Throughout the 2013 Super Rugby competition Luatua stood out. At 1.95 and 114kg he is almost the perfect physical specimen for the job description.
A natural athlete with genuine ball playing gifts, Luatua had everyone excited, including the All Blacks. But when they sent him into battle, they saw everything they wanted bar one major thing – Luatua didn’t have that destructive quality.
He didn’t have the required appetite to be at the coal face, throwing himself about as if he owned the breakdown and all the territory around it.
By 2014 they had cooled on him because of his lack of physical presence and besides, Kaino had returned from Japan and had lost none of his aggression or capacity to stop men dead in their tracks.
Squire has proven himself to be different – the one with the inexorable quality the All Blacks are after.
WE HAVE SPENT A LOT OF ENERGY AND TIME – AND SO HAS HE – TO GET HIM TO WHERE HE NEEDS TO BE...AND HE IS PLAYING LIKE A GENUINE ALL BLACK AT THE MOMENT. AND TO THINK HE IS GOING TO BE LEAVING IS KIND OF SAD.’ STEVE HANSEN
This year will most likely be the one when the succession plan accelerates. Kaino, even if he hits top form and his body is in great shape, won’t play as much as he has in previous years.
The coaches need to give Squire more game time. If Luatua wasn’t heading for Bristol, he’d be challenging for some of that. If he’d opted to stay, the picture wouldn’t be as clear-cut as it is because Luatua has advanced his game in the last 12 months and developed some of the edge he needed to.
The frustration for the All Blacks is that Luatua has been ticking that final box for them all season – playing with a destructive edge and imposing himself physically – but he’s opted to head overseas.
“We have spent a lot of energy and time – and so has he – to get him to where he needs to be,” says Hansen. “And he is playing like a genuine All Black at the moment. And to think he is going to be leaving is kind of sad. I know he’s going for all the right reasons, but he’s becoming the player we always wanted him to become but patience is a virtue they say and he’s got an opportunity and he is taking it.”
So it will be Squire, at this stage, that the selectors will feel they need to see more of. That much was confirmed when Squire was picked in the All Blacks squad of 33 to play the British and Irish Lions despite the fact he was recovering from a broken thumb.
In his absence, the selectors had to call up both Akira Ioane and Vaea Fifita, who are now shaping as the cabs queuing up behind Squire.
Ioane is a longer term prospect. At 1.96m and 115kg, he’s a freakishly gifted athlete. Good enough to play sevens at the Olympics, Ioane is deadly when he’s given space and the opportunity to play that bit wider.
Several times for the Blues this year he damaged teams with his unstoppable power on the flanks and that speed and athleticism is what sets him apart.
But his call-up as injury cover came about because for the first time since he came into Super Rugby, Ioane began to show an appetite for the nastier stuff. He became more involved in the cleanout and hit rucks a bit harder.
His defence was solid without being destructive. He was effective on the back of his size and power alone, and the selectors could see that if improves his technique, he’ll become a tackling weapon.
He has only just turned 22 so is a relative baby. He’s a work in progress, a player who will be monitored closely and likely to be taken on the end of year tour.
Fifita is three years older and a bit further along in terms of his ability to contribute physically. He’s a leaner, more agile athlete, standing at 1.96m and weighing 107kg.
No one should confuse lean with lightweight, however, as Fifita hits collisions hard and makes a significant impact. The All Blacks believe he could easily fill out to 114kg and not lose what he’s got in terms of mobility.
“We have always thought he is a six,” said Hansen in explaining what the All Blacks like about Fifita. “The Hurricanes think he’s a lock. But he’s a good athlete, he’s brilliant in the air and a good ball carrier and a punishing tackler. It is just a matter of getting Vaea comfortable so he can go out and express himself. He’ll grow.”
Again, the message about Fifita is that he’s a developing prospect and that his time will come later in the year.
For the Rugby Championship, the stage will be Squire’s. The All Blacks will want to see if he can continue to develop the finer parts of his game and add finesse to his obvious brutality.
There was plenty of evidence that was already happening last year. Squire began to make high impact cameo appearances off the bench during the Rugby Championship and then started against Ireland in Chicago when Kaino had to cover lock.
WHEN YOU ARE OUT THERE, YOU CAN’T REALLY HESITATE WHEN YOU ARE IN THE THICK OF IT OTHERWISE YOU WILL BE BEATEN TO WHATEVER IT IS, SO DOING THAT LITTLE BIT OF EXTRA HOMEWORK IS KEY.’ LIAM SQUIRE
Squire held up supremely well in all the physical stakes. He played as if it was Super Rugby – with no sense of fear either for the quality of his opponents or for the size of the occasion.
Where he needed a little work was in his distribution and positioning. He’d played most of the year at No 8 for the Highlanders, and there was maybe a little adjusting to be done to the position and also to the pace of test football. Nothing major, just a bit of adjustment that be expected to come with more experience and exposure.
“I started my ITM Cup rugby at six and it wasn’t until two years ago that I moved to No 8 so six is a pretty familiar role,” he says. “I am pretty open minded about the two at the moment. They are both familiar to me. You probably get involved a bit more in attack at No 8, but they are both pretty similar.
“I definitely did not find anything easy. It [test rugby] is definitely a lot faster than Super Rugby. Getting up to speed with the game was a big eye-opener and doing the little things during the week becomes quite crucial. When you are out there, you can’t really hesitate when you are in the thick of it otherwise you will be beaten to whatever it is, so doing that little bit of extra homework is key.”
How far down the succession path Squire travels this year will depend largely on how well he grasps his chance when it comes. But he can be assured of one thing, that he has the ability to go further than any of the other aspiring blindsides of the last decade, and he can perhaps thank the rough and tumble of his rural upbringing for that.
FIRST BLOOD It was at the Chiefs where Liam Squire started to make an impression.
ROUGH AND TUMBLE Growing up on a farm with older brothers has helped help shape Liam Squire.
BENCH MARK Jerry Collins set the benchmark for physical expectations from an All Blacks No 6.
[RIGHT] BRAIN BOX Victor Vito admitted he maybe thought about things too hard. [FAR RIGHT, ABOVE] BRIEF STINT Liam Messam had a couple of years when he really had his game sorted. [FAR RIGHT, BELOW] LOST CHANCE Steven Luatua was on track to become the player the All Blacks wanted.
NAILED IT Luatua was in the form of his career this year.
AKIRA IOANE VAEA FIFITA
HARD EDGE While Squire is mobile, it’s the physical edge he brings with it that sets him apart.