SQUIRE

NZ Rugby World - - The Chosen One -

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.

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