All Blacks: Hoeata locked in as a specialist

By Gregor Paul

New All Black Jarrad Hoeata fits the mould of the rugged old-school lock. Photo / Getty Images
New All Black Jarrad Hoeata fits the mould of the rugged old-school lock. Photo / Getty Images

The penny took a while to drop but the All Black selectors have finally gained a clear understanding of what they need from their locks.

For the first five years of the Graham Henry era, the emphasis was on athleticism, ball-handling and mobility. The coaches weren't so much looking for locks, more pseudo-loose forwards who could handle the aerial duties.

Look back at some of their selections and it's obvious the panel were seduced by overt displays of athleticism, that they were easily convinced ball carriers and free-rangers would add the dimension they were after.

Isaac Ross was one of those who won his place on the back of an impressive campaign in the loose in 2009. Ross ran like a back and caught the eye for the Crusaders with his ability to pass and catch as well as beat players one-on-one.

Bryn Evans was another who won test caps without ever having shown much in the way of raw aggression or effectiveness at the cleanout.

All that has changed now. The coaches have come to see the position for what it really is - a place for grunt men; for hard-edged sorts who shift the scrum, knock bodies out the way at the cleanout and hold up well in the air.

Loosely, it could be said the selectors have gone old school, that they have fallen in love with the idea of rugged locks whose key ambition in life is to revel in the unglamorous chores.

Jarrad Hoeata, who made his test debut in Friday's 60-14 win over Fiji, can be thankful for this new mind-set. Under the old thinking he'd never have made the national set-up which explains why for the last few years he's operated in obscurity, no one other than Jamie Joseph believing there was enormous potential.

It has taken a number of factors for the selection template to swing back in favour of those locks with a traditional core skill-set. The humbling three tests lost to South Africa in 2009 went a long way towards showing the All Blacks they were on the wrong track.

With the game all about kick and rush back then, as well as set-piece ascendancy, the Boks dominated world rugby. Their twin towers of Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield established themselves as the best in the world that year and highlighted the need for locks to be locks and nothing else.

Matfield and Botha did their roles at the lineout; they shoved in the scrums and made sure bodies were being taken out at the breakdown and left the loose forwards to win the ball and carry it.

Their supremacy that year was galling for the All Blacks who didn't have the same contribution coming through from their boiler-house.

The inclusion of Tom Donnelly later in the year was further confirmation that solid customers who don't show up all over the park are, in fact, what the All Blacks are looking for at lock.

Hoeata, throughout the course of the season, has looked increasingly like a more dynamic, aggressive version of Donnelly. Game time brought the best out of him. He fronted against the bigger African packs and didn't start drifting out to the open spaces in the hope he could get his hands on the ball.

He stayed in the thick of the battle, resolute that his job was to knock people down and ultimately that is what won him his call-up.

"I like his aggression as long as it is disciplined," says Henry. "I like his edge. He's a good scrummaging lock and he's also good in the lineout and he has got some athleticism around the park."

Capable of playing at blindside, Hoeata's versatility has been aired as the critical factor in earning him his place.

But it really hasn't. He made the squad on the basis he is one of the top four locks in the country and his ability to play in the loose trio is a non-factor in his inclusion.

"Depending on what the coaches want, I can play a bit looser," says Hoeata. "I find playing lock a lot easier. It is pretty straightforward. You clear rucks hard, you tackle hard and if you get the chance to run with the ball, you run hard. I find that part of the game easier.

"That is probably why, at the moment, I am concentrating on lock. If I go back to Taranaki I may have to play six there but [the All Black coaches] have been the same as Jamie - it is as a lock that they see me."

The fact Hoeata is not being encouraged to see himself as a hybrid - a lock who can play six - is perhaps the most compelling evidence of all that the selectors have shifted their thinking. Since 2004, the panel have searched endlessly for a genuine dual-portfolio player. At various stages they tried Reuben Thorne, Jason Eaton, Angus MacDonald, Troy Flavell and even talked about converting Ross to the blindside.

But none managed to prove it was possible to be both and there is certainty around Hoeata that playing him at blindside is not something they would seriously consider.

- Herald on Sunday

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