With rugby in the rest of the world on hold, Super Rugby Aotearoa – New Zealand’s domestic offshoot of the usual southern hemisphere Super Rugby tournament – has attracted more eyeballs than usual.
And one player in particular has been raising the eyebrows above them.
Hoskins Sotutu only made his debut for the Auckland-based Blues at the tail-end of their 2019 campaign.
But the uncapped 21-year-old number eight’s hard running, soft hands and all-court excellence have been a fixture of his team’s 100% record so far in the tournament.
Born and raised in New Zealand, he also qualifies for Fiji though his father and England though his mother.
According to the Daily Telegraph, his eligibility has prompted coach Eddie Jones to start investigating whether he could be convinced to represent England.
Why is Sotutu so highly rated?
Sotutu’s stats from the early rounds of Super Rugby Aotearoa are stratospherically high for a relative rookie.
He has made the highest number of tackles and offloads in the tournament. He is fourth in the standings for carries and similarly placed in the number of line-outs won.
But his quality is clearest in select moments rather than particular stats.
Whether it is the delicious cut-out pass to free Mark Telea for a score against the Chiefs or a deft outside-of-the-foot grubber to set up a score against the Waratahs, his highlights reel is growing fast.
His dexterity stems from his upbringing. His father, Waisake Sotutu, represented the Blues as a winger and guided his son as a teenage back.
Sotutu junior, who would attempt to recreate the signature swallow dive of Fiji-born All Black winger Joe Rokocoko as a young player, only switched into the forwards aged 16.
Why would England want him?
Jones has not yet hit upon a settled back-row combination, with number eight being particularly difficult to fill.
Billy Vunipola was the man in possession throughout 2019, but suffered a fourth broken arm in the space of two years in January.
Tom Curry, usually a flanker, stepped in for the 2020 Six Nations but may not be a long-term solution. Wasps’ Nathan Hughes seems to have fallen out of favour.
Exeter’s Sam Simmonds and Harlequins’ Alex Dombrandt both have significant supporters but don’t seem to count Jones among them, while Saracens’ Ben Earl is yet to be given an international start.
While Sotutu’s English heritage would mean he would be immediately available to Eddie Jones under World Rugby rules, the Rugby Football Union’s own requirement that England players play their club rugby in England barring “exceptional circumstances” would necessitate a move to the Premiership.
New Zealand, who Sotutu played for at under-20 level, will be particularly alert to the situation after long-time number eight Kieran Read retired last year.
Fiji – for whom Sotutu’s father won 12 caps, including against England at the 1999 World Cup – would surely have an emotional pull.
“Whatever is next will come,” he told the Weekend Herald last month. “When the decision comes, it will come easy.”
BBC rugby union correspondent Chris Jones
Eddie Jones has form when it comes to raiding New Zealand’s Super Rugby, with Piers Francis and Brad Shields both selected for England before they had played a minute in the Premiership, while the England boss did similar with Ben Te’o back in 2016.
However, while Francis was a handy squad player at the World Cup and Shields never let himself down in his fleeting England career, neither have really made a mark.
Sotutu might well be capable of making more of an impact at the top level, but it is nonetheless a stretch to see him running out at Twickenham any time soon. While the financial lure (around £25,000 per game) of playing for England would tempt anyone – as Nathan Hughes outlined a few years back – cash-strapped Premiership clubs have done their contract dealings already for the next year, and are unlikely for some time to have either the money in their bank accounts or the space in their salary caps to bring in big-name imports.
While it is hard to see it happening, until Sotutu pulls on an All Blacks or Fiji jersey, it is one to watch with interest. But whether England and the Rugby Football Union should be looking to New Zealand, given the wealth of playing talent on their doorstep, is another matter altogether.