Herald on Sunday
Tupaea in line for higher honours
There has been only one game of note so far but there’s a distinct probability Chiefs midfielder Quinn Tupaea is forcing his way into
All Blacks calculations.
That game — against the Blues, where he galloped through the crowded midfield defence almost at will — is not enough to make a judgement, no matter how well he played.
His prospects took a hit when he limped out of last night’s game in Dunedin with an ankle injury and he has work to do yet on his distribution and link play but he provides something clearly missing in today’s defence-dominated game: midfield penetration.
These are interesting times for the All Blacks and head coach Ian Foster. They are disrupted times and the Rugby World Cup in France in 2023 is closer than it may appear.
Foster has to ensure his tenure goes past his contracted appointment to the end of this year — and he also has to begin to build for that World Cup.
The All Blacks have three tests to start the international season — Italy twice, then Fiji — perfect opportunities to trial newcomers.
Most eyes are on the All Blacks’ loose forward set-up, with skipper and openside Sam Cane out for the foreseeable future. But the midfield may be ripe for a bit of tinkering.
On the face of it, New Zealand is blessed with quality midfielders. Anton Lienert-Brown (49 tests), Jack Goodhue (19), Ngani Laumape (15) and Rieko Ioane (33) have made it possible not to miss the retirement of Sonny Bill Williams, for example.
But it’s in Williams’ position, second five-eighth, that major interest lies. Lienert-Brown, Goodhue and Ioane are all predominantly centres and have been playing 13 this season. Ioane has probably been the form horse in that position so far (even though Tupaea strode past him a couple of times in their midfield meeting).
Goodhue and Lienert-Brown have been quiet by comparison so far; so has Laumape, whose fullblooded charges have not yet produced much apart from the ability, yet again, to watch defences dominate.
Goodhue (at 12) and Lienert-Brown (at 13) were last season’s preferred midfield combo but it is odd to note that, in their combined total of 67 test matches, they have started together in the midfield only eight times — and three of them were lost (47-26 to the Australians in Perth, 19-7 to England in the 2019 World Cup and that historic, horror loss to the Pumas last year).
The midfield wasn’t the reason for the losses or even a contributing factor but the England defeat is still writ large. Their defence that day (like the Argentinians’ a year later) swallowed the All Blacks whole, with the coaches forced to send on reinforcements (including Williams for Goodhue) to make things happen. They didn’t.
Even allowing that no offence would have breached England that day, a mixture of brawn, speed and tackle-busting ability would not go amiss (Laumape, to be fair, wasn’t selected for the Cup).That’s where Tupaea could come in, especially with improvements in his distribution and support play.
That Goodhue and LienertBrown have started a test together so few times attests to the fact both are more 13s than 12s. If you had to choose an All Blacks test team now, Goodhue might still get the nod ahead of Ioane at 13.
Ioane might offer a little more on attack but Goodhue has more than a touch of the Conrad Smiths about him. He consistently makes good decisions, is a reliable distributor and good defender. He is one of those players coaches and colleagues love because he almost invariably does the right thing; teammates can read his play and benefit from it.
Midfield is also about combination. You wonder how a Tupaea-Ioane combo might go; a Tupaea-Goodhue mix seems more balanced and liable to make key connections when a bust is made.
There’s another candidate Foster may consider for the midfield: the Crusaders’ David Havili. He might be a transplanted fullback but he has played well in the midfield this year, allowing Goodhue to play at 13.
Havili, before he was injured, was the pick of Super Rugby Aotearoa fullbacks last year. This season, he has already displayed a few powerful, twisting runs, slickly timed passes and offloads. His kicking from hand and useful goalkicking gives him a chance of at least a squad berth this year and for the World Cup. He has the Ben Smith-like trait of usually being able to beat the first tackle and the calm temperament so vital at the top.
None of the four incumbents are over the hill or even starting up the incline. Ioane is 24, Lienert-Brown and Goodhue just 25 and even Laumape is only 27.
Plenty of tests left there and some of the reasons Lienert-Brown and Goodhue haven’t started together more include injury and rotation.
But if it’s penetration that is required, there is room for exploration of newcomers such as Tupaea and Havili.