Caleb Clarke’s explosive 40m run set the tone for a thrilling inter-island rugby final at Wellington’s Cake Tin on Saturday that culminated in Will Jordan’s last gasp converted try which clinched South’s 38-35 win against the North.
Played before no fans because of Covid-19 restrictions, the game reflected New Zealand’s depth of talent with the South players’ jubilant celebrations reflecting how much the game meant to them.
On Sunday, 35 players were rewarded for their effort when this year’s All Blacks squad was named. That included seven new caps and seven recalled players.
The new caps included wing Caleb Clarke, No 8 Hoskins Sotutu, loosehead prop Alex Hodgman (Blues), wing Will Jordan, lock Quinton Strange, flanker Cullen Grace (Crusaders) and lock Tupou Vaa’i (Chiefs).
Lock Vaa’i is the youngest at 20, followed by Clarke and Grace (21), and Jordan and Sotutu (22).
Former Crusader Hodgman (27) has thrived for the rejuvenated Blues this season and Strange is a lively Tasman and Crusaders lock who has been injured for much of the season.
So too has exciting Timaru youngster Cullen Grace, named after Christian Cullen, who is an exceptional loose forward/lock who tackles hard and carries the ball well. Va’a is a product from Wesley College who did well in his debut year for the disappointing Chiefs.
Clarke is a former secondary schools sprint champion and son of former All Black Eroni Clarke. Just as he had for the Blues, he and converted centre Rieko Ioane added genuine thrust for the North with Ioane scoring two grand tries, the first from a Beauden Barrett grubber.
Clarke led Mt Albert Grammar to a national First XV title in 2016 and was a member of the 2017 World champion Under 20 team along with Jordan and recalled hooker Asafo Aumua.
He also played for the 2018 Auckland Mitre 10 winners and this year’s champion All Blacks Sevens.
With Anton Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue capable of playing both midfield berths, they are best suited to second-five. Hence Ioane’s superior pace and thrust and much-improved passing could cement him the centre spot.
While George Bridge remains a complete wing who ticks all the boxes, Clarke’s extra speed and size puts Bridge’s starting position at risk.
The same applies to Jordan who is a gifted wing and even better fullback. He scored the most Super Rugby Aotearoa tries, beat the most defenders and made the most metres.
Although there is no 118kg backline giant of Jonah Lomu’s freakish proportions, Rieko Ioane (105), Clarke (103), Lienert-Brown (101), Goodhue and Jordie Barrett (102) are all over 100kg.
The team includes 11 Crusaders, nine Blues, six Hurricanes, six Chiefs and three Highlanders.
Hookers: Dane Coles, Codie Taylor, Asafo Aumua.
Props: Alex Hodgman, Nepo Laulala, Tyrell Lomax, Joe Moody, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Ofa Tungafasi.
Locks: Patrick Tuipulotu, Sam Whitelock, Quinton Strange, Tupou Vaa’i.
Loose forwards: Sam Cane (captain), Shannon Frizell, Ardie Savea, Hoskins Sotutu, Akira Ioane, Dalton Papalii, Cullen Grace.
Halfbacks: Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Brad Weber,
First-fives: Richie Mo’unga, Beauden Barrett.
Midfield: Anton Lienert-Brown, Jack Goodhue, Rieko Ioane, Braydon Ennor.
Outside backs: George Bridge, Sevu Reece, Caleb Clarke, Will Jordan, Damian McKenzie, Jordie Barrett.
- Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sportswriter and author