NZ Rugby World
JOSTLING FOR POSITION
LIAM SQUIRE IS BACK WITH THE HIGHLANDERS AND HAS REDISCOVERED A DESIRE TO PLAY TEST FOOTBALL WHICH MEANS THE ALL BLACKS NOW HAVE FIVE ASPIRING BLINDSIDES HOPING TO WEAR THE NO 6 JERSEY.
It took a moment to consider whether Liam Squire was dreaming when he said he had re-signed with the Highlanders because he is interested in rekindling his test career.
He hasn’t played a test since the match against Ireland in November 2018 and he hasn’t even played that much rugby since then either.
He was injured for a large part of 2019, returned to play a few games for the Highlanders, made himself unavailable for the All Blacks and then saw out the season with Tasman before heading to Japan.
Once he got there he barely played because of the lockdown and once he decided to come home and terminate his contract with NTT, he underwent surgery on all the various part so his body that needed to be fixed.
The result is that he’s almost a new athlete in body, mind and spirit and from saying in 2019 that he was done, no longer capable of coping with the demands of preparing himself for test football, he’s no suddenly reinvigorated and hungry to get back into action.
“It’s something that does burn in the back of my mind,” Squire said when he was asked whether he still had ambitions to add to his 23 test caps. “But for me, I don’t look too far ahead. Making the Highlanders squad is the number one priority. They’ve got a lot of depth in the loose forwards so it’s going to be exciting and challenging in that aspect.
“But after getting that hip surgery and probably a couple of other little things I felt like I still had a bit left here in New Zealand and staying home and playing Super Rugby again was exciting. I feel refreshed again like I’ve got my second wind.”
The question is, of course, whether he has a realistic chance of being able to return to the sort of form he would need to be in to earn an All Blacks recall.
Highlanders coach Tony Brown certainly thinks so and he’s right to be confident. Jerome Kaino did exactly the same thing mid-way through his career. At much the same age, Kaino dislocated his shoulder for a second time and decided to head to Japan in 2012 and 2013 before returning to New Zealand in 2014.
He was 31 when he re-signed with the Blues and no one was too sure whether he would be able to play at the same level in 2014. It didn’t take long to get an answer.
Kaino was in great shape, both physically and mentally and still had the same desire and impact. His recall was a formality and he pushed on to play for the All Blacks until 2017 and was almost as good at the 2015 World Cup as he was the 2011.
Kaino is indeed still playing now at 37 and he says he wouldn’t have been had it not been for the break he took in Japan.
At 29, there is no reason to believe Squire couldn’t do the same. He was beginning to show tremendous promise in 2017 and 2018 and was easily the best No 6 in the country before injury derailed him.
He’s tough, something he proved when he played for the All Blacks with the sort of intimidation factor they were after. And something he proved when he left home at 15 to work on a farm.
Not many would have the desire or appetite to make their own way in the world at that age, but Squire did and it says plenty about him that he has been looking after himself since begore his 16th birthday.
As he told NZ Rugby World in 2018: “If I set my sights on a target I am pretty driven to get there. I guess that can be classed as being quite stubborn. When I was young I was set on leaving school early and you can use that as being a positive.”
He also talked about how he saw his role in the team and dynamic he was trying to create. “You get those times when a guy does get you good but you don’t want to show them that they have got you,” he said.
“You have got to bite through the mouth guard, get up and somehow block it out. It is something you practice.
“There will be times when you feel like that. I think you have got to acknowledge that deep down it is going to hurt. On a Sunday or even on a Monday your body hurts but at the time I try not to think about that too much.
“But I get a good feeling out of it. When I do these sorts of things I feel good for the guys around me and it is a way that I use myself to try to inspire them. I use that to lift them up as well.
“Being physical and getting stuck into that sort of stuff…when I see guys do it, it lifts me. I want to try to do that for my team-mates as well.”
The interesting thing about Squire’s return is that it has clouded a picture that was beginning to take shape by the end of 2020.
The All Blacks now have five players genuinely vying to become the regular occupant of the No 6 jersey and it is not at all clear how that pecking order is going to change in the short or longer term.
What is undeniable is that picking the right one is going to be a big deal moment for the All Blacks. They need a bruiser in that role: a physically imposing, hardhitting ball carrier and destructive tackler on the blindside of their scrum.
That’s a must have item for them and they need a player who can bring an edge
– a seriously scary side to their work on a consistent basis. It’s that last part – the consistency – that will be the deal breaker.
There’s no value in a player who brings it sometimes – head coach Ian Foster is after an every time player and that’s why, by the end of this season, Akira Ioane had jumped ahead of Shannon Frizell.
Frizell began 2020 as the preferred choice after a strong Super Rugby campaign, but he was up and down in four starts. When he’s on he’s good but too often he went missing and too regularly he didn’t look to be the same player for the All Blacks as he’d been for the Highlanders.
Ioane, on the other hand, seemed to grow in stature and confidence. Something clicked for Ioane this year and the petulance, the laziness and the bad attitude all disappeared.
FOR THE LAST TWO OR THREE YEARS, WE’VE SEEN AN ATHLETE GROW.’ LIAM SQUIRE
He was a brute when he was given 30 minutes in Brisbane and even better against the Pumas in the final test of the year.
He carried well and tackled with good technique, but the kicker was the way he didn’t respond to provocation and instead kept his cool. That was a big moment and led to Foster saying after Ioane was controlled, disciplined and aggressive in the 38-0 destruction of the Pumas: “For the last two or three years, we’ve seen an athlete grow,”
“He’s adapted really quickly to what test matches are all about. He wants to be physical and wants to be tough. And he did it in the right way.
“Under [assistant coach John] Plumtree’s guidance, he’s starting to enjoy the set-piece side of life. It hasn’t been his passion but he’s improving there. Now he’s had a taste of it, and knows he can play well at this level, there’s a big opportunity for him.”
Sitting behind Ioane and Frizell, is the 21-year-old Cullen Grace who certainly looked in Super Rugby this year like he has the ability to consistently deliver gritty and destructive rugby.
Injury prevented him from showing what he’s really all about but in the pre-lockdown period of Super Rugby he impressed enough to win a test call-up.
Give him a full season and the expectation is that he could be pushing everyone, something which another youngster, Luke Jacobson, suggested he could also do when he enjoyed an injuryfree run in 2019.
From being four in the race for the No 6 jersey, there are now five because Squire between 2016 and 2018 was the best blindside in New Zealand and able to produce, test after test, the abrasive, dynamic qualities the team needed.
Foster will track them all in Super Next year, most likely pick two, but maybe three of them in his first test squad and then by the end of next year settle on the one he thinks will mature and develop into the player he needs by 2023.
Ioane is the front runner at the moment, Grace and Jacobson have massive upsides and then there is Squire – who might in fact, despite appearing to have drawn a line through his test aspirations last year, be the one who Foster anoints. He’s got it all – size, speed, power, a will to dominate and now, a rejuvenated body and with it a newfound desire to make a dramatic impact in his second coming.