Scott Robertson explains Sititi v Sotutu selection decision

Publish Date
Tuesday, 25 June 2024, 7:53AM

By Liam Napier

Rookies, comebacks, incumbents, bolters.

With a blend of established figures and head-turning new faces, Scott Robertson’s maiden All Blacks squad has a bit of everything.

Robertson buzzed about the Christchurch Convention Centre with nervous excitement as he cut a symbolic ribbon to officially open his new All Blacks era on Monday evening.

Scott Barrett was, as expected, preferred over reigning World Rugby player of the year Ardie Savea to assume the All Blacks captaincy from Sam Cane. Robertson afforded Barrett the right to select his leadership deputies, with Savea and Jordie Barrett handed those duties.

“I had a couple of conversations with different players,” Robertson said. “I believe the best captain for this group with on-field management over the next four-year cycle was Scott.

“Your relationship does count . . . when you’ve had four years with him as captain and worked closely at the Crusaders. He’s your starting lock, extremely experienced and the players will follow him.”

As with the start of any test season, attention elsewhere centres on the five rookies in Robertson’s 32-man squad. Of those, Hurricanes tighthead prop Pasilio Tosi and powerhouse Chiefs No 8 Wallace Sititi steal the limelight.

In-form Hurricanes centre Billy Proctor and Chiefs halfback Cortez Ratima were widely tipped to earn their maiden call-ups, while Crusaders hooker George Bell edged Blues opposite Ricky Riccitelli in a contentious call.

Tosi and Sititi will generate the most debate for their respective rapid rises, though.

Despite a breakout season in which he scored 12 tries for the championship-winning Blues, Hoskins Sotutu didn’t do enough to force his way into the reckoning.

Sotutu started this year with a chip on his shoulder after being brutally cast aside – not only from the test team but also from the second-tier All Blacks XV last year.

Yet with Savea, Luke Jacobson, Ethan Blackadder, Dalton Papali’i, Samipeni Finau and 21-year-old Sititi included in the highly contested loose forward department, Sotutu once again misses the cut.

Hurricanes openside Peter Lakai will train with the All Blacks as an emerging player. But there was no room, either, for No 8 Brayden Iose, highlighting the depth in Roberston’s specialist area.

“The toughest call,” Robertson said of the decision between Sititi and Sotutu.

“I thought hard and deep and challenged myself. I looked at all the reasons why I pick players and that’s where we fell. We believe Wallace is an incredible young talent. The harder the game the higher he rose in regards to his performance. He owned it. We’re really impressed but it’s a tough call.”

While Sititi’s inclusion is a major talking point, Tosi owns the outright bolster tag.

A product of Rotorua Boys’ High, Tosi switched from No 8 to prop four years ago while with the Southland Stags. After relocating to Bay of Plenty an impressive performance against Wellington caught the eye of the Hurricanes, who then signed the 25-year-old for the past two seasons.

“Last year we saw him play a bit of footy in Super Rugby and he transferred that form,” Robertson said. “His ability to take a lot of minutes with Tyrel [Lomax] out was probably a positive for him.

“We realised he could start, he could finish. He’s a great technical scrummager. He’s a big man and he’s strong. He’s a former No 8 with good feet. He ticked everything we required. Front-rowers make front-rowers so he’s against some good opposition. In this environment, we think he’s going to come through very quickly.”

Hooker is another point of contention. With Chiefs incumbent Samisoni Taukei’aho sidelined with an Achilles injury the All Blacks needed a third option behind Codie Taylor and Asafo Aumua. Despite Riccitelli impressing in a dominant Blues pack the All Blacks opted for 22-year-old Crusaders hooker Bell.

Stats don’t always reveal the full picture, but the Blues lineout was the best in the competition this year while the Crusaders ranked third worst.

“It’s a decision for the future,” Robertson said. “We felt we’ve got an incredibly talented young athletic player who is going to thrive in our environment. George has got all the attributes to go a long way and play a lot of tests. It was a tough call because a number of hookers put their hands up.”

Other talking points include comebacks from veteran halfback TJ Perenara, following two Achilles surgeries, and Blues captain Patrick Tuipulotu.

With the All Blacks selecting only three specialist locks to start the post-Sam Whitelock/Brodie Retallick era, Blues second-rower Sam Darry has been included as cover for Tuipulotu after he returned five weeks early from a knee ligament injury to produce a heroic performance in the Super Rugby final.

Robertson, though, appears confident Tuipulotu will be fit for the first test against England in Dunedin on July 6.

“If he can play like that with an achy knee we’ll take him. He’s pretty special.”

Hurricanes fullback Ruben Love, who missed out to Blues playmaker Stephen Perofeta, and Crusaders loosehead prop George Bower are also included as injury cover for Ofa Tu’ungafasi and Caleb Clarke – both of whom are carrying rib injuries following last Saturday’s final.

With 21 players returning from last year’s World Cup a core of experience remains prevalent, but in setting out his stall with his first squad selection, the Robertson era now truly begins.

All Blacks squad:
Props: Ethan de Groot, Tyrel Lomax, Fletcher Newell, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Pasilio Tosi (uncapped), Tamaiti Williams

Hookers: Asafo Aumua, George Bell (uncapped), Codie Taylor

Locks: Scott Barrett, Patrick Tuipulotu, Tupou Vaa’i

Loose forwards: Ethan Blackadder, Samipeni Finau, Luke Jacobson, Dalton Papali’i, Ardie Savea, Wallace Sititi (uncapped)

Halfbacks: Finlay Christie, TJ Perenara, Cortez Ratima (uncapped)

First five-eighths: Beauden Barrett, Damian McKenzie

Midfielders: Jordie Barrett, Rieko Ioane, Anton Lienert-Brown, Billy Proctor (uncapped)

Outside backs: Caleb Clarke, Emoni Narawa, Stephen Perofeta, Sevu Reece, Mark Tele’a

This article was first published on and is republished here with permission

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