'Composed' Quinn Tupaea impresses with his big move into No 12

You could say it’s been moving year for All Blacks bolter Quinn Tupaea who made the shift from centre to second five-eighths with the Chiefs and now finds himself on the cusp of the ultimate progression into the test arena because of it.

Make no mistake, the All Blacks understand they have some work to do in their midfield space in general, and the No 12 position in particular as they open a challenging campaign likely to grow to 15 tests with their July series against Tonga (July 3) and Fiji (July 10 and 17).

Which is where Tupaea, the 22-year-old Waikato product and surprise selection of Foster’s 36-man squad for July announced on Monday night, and recalled Crusaders standout David Havili come in. With the experienced Anton Lienert-Brown, who sashays between midfield spots without missing a beat, picked but potentially missing the first two internationals of the year, there is somewhat of a fresh look in an area coach Ian Foster admits will garner a lot of “interest”.

Throw in the fact Crusaders linchpin Jack Goodhue is out for the year with injury and human wrecking ball Ngani Laumape has bolted for Japan, and the All Blacks midfield is not exactly brimming with experience. Take out the 49 caps of Lienert Brown, who may not be back until the final run against the Fijians after elbow surgery, and you have a collective 37 tests among the remaining four contenders,

The situation becomes even more stark when you account for the fact that Rieko Ioane has played 33 of those 37 tests, and that only one of those appearances came in midfield (last year’s draw against the Wallabies in Wellington).

Foster, of course, is anything but daunted by the situation he faces with his midfielders. In Tupaea, Havili, Ioane, Brayden Ennor and, eventually, Lienert-Brown he sees all the ability and stability he requires.

“We don’t see it as uncertainty, we’re pretty sure about what we’ve got,” he told Stuff after announcing five uncapped players in his squad of 36. “But I’d like to say it will probably create the most interest in performance and there’s going be some opportunity for players to put their hand up in that space.

“I expect a lot of hard work to go into that group. We need to spend a lot of time assessing exactly what we want out of our midfield to make sure we get that delivered in our game-plan. We’ve got the players – now we’ve just got to do it.”

And Foster said Tupaea, who has progressed rapidly into a key member of the Chiefs backline, had impressed him after making the crucial move into the No 12 spot.

“He’s played well, he’s very confident, he carries hard, and he looks for continuity. He’s a good offloader, but has got a bit of work to do post-line break,” said the All Blacks coach. “But he backs himself in that space.

“I think he’s grown from last year when he played centre for the Chiefs and probably struggled a bit defensively. But he went into 12, played inside Anton and we saw him really composed. His workrate is huge and he’s shown us he believes in himself and what he does, and now we’ll have a look at him at the next step.”

The All Blacks’ specific needs in midfield, Foster revealed, was a big part of why a form player such as Leicester Fainga'anuku, who impressed for the Crusaders so much in 2021, had missed the cut.

“He played well on the wing and he played very physically at centre,” said Foster of the Crusaders powerhouse. “He clearly has some work-ons in terms of the other aspects of the centre role he needs to do. But he played well.

“When you look through the midfield we’ve got Rieko and Brayden who both started on the wing and went into centre, and are both left-sided rugby players. You’ve probably got the same story with Leicester. It’s 12 where we needed to build a bit more depth.

“We felt in Quinn we had someone who we saw more as a specialist 12, and we really felt that was where we needed to expand some of our options in the midfield.”

But a squad that will be captained by 122-cap lock Sam Whitelock also contains lashings of experience, including Beauden Barrett and Brodie Retallick both back from Japan, and some players being given another crack after some time away, such as Havili and Ennor, and the Chiefs’ Luke Jacobson and Angus Ta’avao.

Foster revealed Blackadder, son of former All Black captain Todd, had won a deserved spot at No 6 ahead of strong contenders such as the Blues’ Tom Robinson, Chiefs’ Pita Gus Sowakula and his own ‘Saders team-mate Cullen Grace because of an impressive all-round package.

“Ethan played well, he worked hard, and we liked him when he went into 7 as well," said Foster. “We think there’s a bit of a future there for him and we’re going to explore that. He’s a good option for us.”

The All Blacks will assemble in Auckland on Wednesday and head for a three-day camp in Papakura on Thursday. Players will head home Saturday afternoon for some family time before reassembling on Monday to begin preparations for the test against Tonga at Mount Smart Stadium.