Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Luatua back on AB radar

Steven Luatua is waiting to see if he has done enough for the Blues to add to his nine All Black caps earned last year. Photo / Getty Images
Steven Luatua is waiting to see if he has done enough for the Blues to add to his nine All Black caps earned last year. Photo / Getty Images

The first half of 2014 has very much been the Jerome Kaino show. Maybe the second will belong to Steven Luatua, who appears poised to re-emerge as a genuine international force.

There were promising signs in the last few weeks Luatua was returning to the sort of form that saw him win nine test caps last year.

In Perth, he thundered about with obvious intent as the Blues ripped apart the Force.

A week later, he was intense and physical against the Crusaders, a central part of a forward effort that was impressively dominant at times.

And then in this season's final outing for the Blues, coach John Kirwan reckoned Luatua played exactly like a blindside should.

It's sit-and-wait time now for the 23-year-old, as there's nothing more he can do to force his way back into the All Blacks, who will announce their Rugby Championship squad after the Super Rugby final on August 2.

"I could have run that bit harder and made a few more tackles so I'm not entirely comfortable with how I played," is Luatua's assessment of what he has achieved since the June tests. "But I think I did enough to put my name on the radar."

Luatua didn't make the initial All Black squad for the England series but earned a late reprieve when Kieran Read's concussion symptoms flared. That call-up had two major effects. It filled him with confidence and inspired him into a better head space.

"My involvement was on a week-to-week basis and, when they called me back for the second week, that was a big boost to my confidence.

"I felt that, while I was in camp with the All Blacks, I gave a good account of myself. I was putting my hand up to be involved."

That was exactly what All Black coach Steve Hansen wanted to see. Luatua is an athlete of extreme interest to the All Blacks. There's 1.96m and 114kg of him for a start. He's a blindside in a lock's body and his aerial game is a critical offering.

The All Blacks' best half of rugby this year was in Hamilton when Read supplied endless possession off the top of the lineout. That illustrated not only how much the All Blacks had missed Read, but also how important the lineout has become in their arsenal.

And that's largely why an in-form Luatua will be hard for the All Blacks to resist. He can sit on the bench and provide reassurance that the lineout will be effective for 80 minutes. He can also be considered loose forward and lock cover and, above all else, as he showed last year, he can make a contribution at this level.

Luatua is both creative and destructive when he's unleashed in the wider reaches. The problem throughout the first half of this year was that he wasn't able to get out to the touchline and play where he's most effective.

"I guess you could simplify it all by saying I wasn't fit enough," he says. "I had a lot of desire and intent, but it came down to me being able to carry that out.

"I thought I had worked pretty hard but it was apparent that, when I came back after January, I hadn't."

Luatua, like a few first-year All Blacks, struggled with coming back from tour in early December last year, missing most of the Blues pre-season and then trying to integrate into the team only a few weeks before the first game.

That phenomenon is dubbed Second Season Syndrome and it usually has the unwelcome side-effect of the sufferer becoming the Forgotten Man.

Having felt the pain of rejection and the frustration it brings, Luatua is hopeful the last five months of 2014 will look remarkably different to the first five.

"Hopefully I can make it back to the All Blacks," he says. "But if not, then I'd be pretty excited about playing for Auckland doing what I can there to force my way back for the end-of-year tour."

- Herald on Sunday

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