Keep­ing an eye on the hospi­tal ward

WYNNE GRAY IS A FOR­MER SE­NIOR RUGBY WRITER AT THE NEW ZEALAND HER­ALD.

NZ Rugby World - - Contents -

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.

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