Keeping an eye on the hospital ward
WYNNE GRAY IS A FORMER SENIOR RUGBY WRITER AT THE NEW ZEALAND HERALD.
IT WAS THRILLING to see the consistent excellence of Beauden Barrett as he swooped from the All Black back-up benches to global salutes as the player of the year.
Ben Smith and Dane Coles were others who brought their A games most weekends while Israel Dagg’s work was a redemptive statement about his quality.
Rewards for persistence came to Matt Todd and Steven Luatua, while Owen Franks’ hard slog to 90 caps at tight-head prop might not be a thing of public beauty, his team knows his immense value.
The ascension of Rieko Ioane and Scott Barrett illustrated the astonishing depth of talent and the uncanny ability of the All Black selectors to zero in on talent and get it sorted for test rugby.
All those attributes glittered at the end-of-year awards evening and the finish of a season where the All Blacks won all but one of their 14 tests to continue their dominance of the world rankings.
It was also a year when a number of players fell to the injury curse of the game. That occupational hazard hits most at some stage – the only question is to what extent.
Think Richie McCaw and concussion, Keven Mealamu and calves, Daniel Carter and his knees, Conrad Smith and head knocks, Tony Woodcock and his neck – men who carved out massive international careers around some significant personal damage. They all felt the bite of surgery or medical advice to stand down from the game.
That was the lot for a number of top players in 2016 as they saw their seasons shredded and then had to watch from the sidelines as others took over their roles.
It’s that lost group of 2016 who will fascinate me as New Zealand hitches up their strides, wraps their arms around their comrades and prepares to tackle the visit from the British and Irish Lions.
We know what the All Blacks did, but can those who were hurt, those who had scant time in their Super rugby colours or international kit pick up the pieces to challenge for a start?
Serious injury zeroed in on the frontrow, midfield and outside backs. Nepo Laulala, Pauliasi Manu, Jeff To’omagaAllen and Nathan Harris all fell to the prop or hookers curse; Sonny Bill Williams, Charlie Ngatai, Rene Ranger and Richard Buckman felt that pain in midfield, and further out Nehe MilnerSkudder just got started before his knee packed it in.
The Skud was the blazing new star, the nifty wing with the flashing feet and ability to sniff out chances, who danced across the World Cup to a winners’ medal. Then he was gone. Taken by a Super rugby mishap and left with a year to ponder his eight tests and matching number of tries.
SBW was at the global dance too, tucked in behind Ma’a Nonu but ready to change jersey numbers to No 12 until his commitment to the Olympic sevens saw him carted off to surgery on his Achilles tendon.
Manu was called to the RWC to replace an injured Wyatt Crockett, got a brief outing in the decider and collected his winners’ medal. All that pride went down the gurgler when his leg packed it in, although he made a late season provincial recovery.
Laulala was another tighthead prop whose season was blown apart by damage, but he, like Manu, is a player the selectors are hugely interested in because of his technical ability to handle both sides of the scrum while being comfortable with the ball around the field and on defence. To’omaga-Allen is also in range where his huge frame handles the athletic components, but has some work to do on the specifics of his scrummaging.
That lineup of fit props is a message to Ofa Tu’ungafasi and Wyatt Crockett, in particular, that they are coming hard and with any form dips or injury they are the men for 2017.
Same with Harris who has sniffed the selectors’ gold-dust for some time because he has the frame, the mobility and skills, but has struggled with repeat leg injuries. Dane Coles has a march on every other hooker in the land, but a fit Harris has a bead on the deputy’s badge if he can stay fit.
We loved the work of Ngatai throughout the last Super rugby series as his game and skills flowed. National elevation was inevitable and it came, along with another bout of concussion. Ngatai did not play for the rest for the year and that absence is looking saddeningly familiar with James Broadhurst’s concussive stand-down.
Equally unknown is the quality of Ranger’s play. After a spell in Europe where injury affected his involvement, he returned to Harbour and the Blues but damaged his knee in April and needed a reconstruction. Ranger was good, he was a powerful midfield talent and deadly at the ruck, but he’s been off the page now for some seasons.
Whichever way you look, the selection squeeze will be on this year from the heavily experienced captain Kieran Read to a rookie apprentice like Jordan Barrett.
When the Lions last toured in 2005, the All Blacks used seven rookies with Daniel Carter, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Luke McAlister being the headline acts. Talent identification has since broadened and sharpened so surprises are minimal but there’ll always be room for fresh skill.
BIG RETURN There is plenty of excitement about what Nehe MilnerSkudder might do on his return.