Hoskins Sotutu’s first start coincides with the start to the Tri-Nations, and the first chance for the All Blacks to win the Bledisloe on Australian soil since 2009. It is set to be a special occasion writes Oliver Keohane.
Kieran Read’s retirement from international rugby has left a hole in the All Blacks setup that extends beyond a leadership role. Prior to 2020, there was no clear replacement for them, for the specialist role that is a Number 8. While South Africa is blessed with a loose forward factory and many players that can cover the whole back three, New Zealand’s stocks are not nearly as healthy, nor as versatile. Sam Cane is not a number 8, and his brief stints at the back have been nothing special. When one looks to Ardie Savea there is speed, skill and explosiveness but is there the physicality and height that characterises an eighthman? I’m not convinced. Akira Ioane is yet to translate Super Rugby potential into international consistency and so who else really?
But in typical New Zealand fashion, when there appears to be nobody, somebody appears. The somebody in question is Hoskins Sotutu, and if he can translate his Super Rugby stardom onto the international stage and remain consistent, he could answer the All Blacks call for an eighthman that fits the criteria for size, strength, skill and a lineout option.
In two stints off the bench against Australia in the opening Bledisloe encounters, Sotutu didn’t miss one tackle, succeeding in all 13 attempts and getting the ball in hand for nine carries. But this is Sotutu off the bench. Saturday’s start should have the rugby public excited because it is a 60-80 minute opportunity for the 6ft3, 106kg 22 year old to deliver on the picture that his Super Rugby statistics have painted.
In 10 games across the shortened Super Rugby and then New Zealand’s domestic Super Rugby Aotearoa competition, Sotutu was a menace on attack and near faultless on defence. In his 106 carries, he beat 28 defenders and made nine clean breaks while amassing 374 running meters and managing three kicks along the way. He made 49 passes, assisted 15 tries, and scored two tries himself. On defence Sotutu was successful in the tackle 91% of the time, completing 83 of his 91 attempts and winning 14 turnovers. While there is a subtly to every player’s game that is only visible in real time, statistics tell the most truthful story. Real time viewing shows a player who can bash it up with brute force, but link with the backline with ease. Sotutu’s statistics back that up, by telling a story of a very complete footballer at a very young age. Selected at Number 8 for the All Black , he will be expected to fulfil a role which positionally demands the all round skill set that he has displayed.
New Zealand have produced some very good Super Rugby talents who have promised much but drifted in and out of the All Blacks setup, most recently Steven Luatua, Vaea Fifita and even Akira Ioane, one could argue. While this is always a possibility for any youngster who bursts on the scene, it should not detract from the excitement that should accompany their first start. In this case, there’s just something about Sotutu that suggests he may be different, that he may tick the boxes that the All Blacks didn’t have to worry about checking for a very ling time with Read at the back of the scrum. Only time will tell, but Saturday will certainly be a spectacle.