Canes' Blade Thomson a surprise pick at No 8
Blade Thomson has done well to stay under the radar for a bloke who is 1.98m tall.
Outside New Plymouth, the 23-year-old's selection at No 8 for the Hurricanes season opener against the Sharks has been met with quizzical looks.
That's because his total Super Rugby experience going into the match in Durban has been a 20-minute cameo against the Crusaders during the Hurricanes final match of 2013.
It's taken injuries to Victor Vito and Brad Shields to thrust Thomson into a starting spot, but his low profile is misleading.
He has been tagged for higher honours since playing as a lock in the world champion New Zealand under-20 side of 2010.
Team-mates Julian Savea and Tawera Kerr-Barlow have gone on to the All Blacks, while Tom Marshall, Charlie Ngatai, Tyler Bleyendaal, Luke Whitelock, Liaki Moki, Jeff Toomaga-Allen and Liam Coltman have become Super Rugby regulars.
Taranaki NPC and New Zealand Maori coach Colin Cooper says injuries and a gradual move from lock to loose forward are why Thomson hasn't followed suit sooner.
"A lot of coaches had seen him as a lock when I came here," Cooper said yesterday of the former New Zealand schools volleyball representative. "But he's such an athlete. He gives you a lot of options in the lineout, he's very good at winning his own ball and is defensively very strong.
"But he just hadn't played No 8, so we worked on him here for a couple of years learning his trade as a No 8. When to pass when the right side's available, when the scrum screws left, what to do, the role of working with the seven defensively and he's gotten better and better."
Thomson has been in Taranaki since joining the province's academy out of Gisborne Boys High School and was in the Hurricanes wider training group in 2012.
Despite being perennially injured during his first year as a fully contracted Super Rugby player, last year proved to be his breakout season.
A big unit at 107kg, Thomson played every minute of every game for Taranaki and was named the amber-and-blacks' player of the year and players' player of the year.
He was also part of Cooper's New Zealand Maori squad and had a strong debut at No 8 during the tough win against the United States in Philadelphia.
Cooper said Thomson had filled out after arriving in Taranaki as a "very lean" lock cum blindside and had made steady gains physically and mentally.
"He's a player who is really going to be a comer. He can play six, eight or lock, that's the beauty with him. He can jump at the front, jump at the back, he's athletic and skilful.
"He's a laidback Gisborne boy and he's taken time to find his way and build his confidence. This match in Durban is a start for him and it could be a big year for him.
"Lock was easy for him, but the pressure is greater at No 8 where you have to control the ball and other things. It takes a while, you have to do your apprenticeship.
"For two years he's been learning with us. This is a massive leap up in Durban, but if he can nail that, be accurate, work well with [TJ] Perenara and get a combination going there then he's a guy who could really put his hand up."