All Blacks’ depth of talent not unlimited
Plethora of options for selectors in the outside backs contrasts sharply with thin pickings at halfback.
IAaron Cruden. Cruden down, enjoy the rest of your life as a legend, Stephen Donald.
But in 2018, would halfbacks step up to the plate the way Donald and company did at firstfive, if TJ Perenara’s ruptured cruciate ligament knee injury lingers, and then, horror of horrors, something happened to the best halfback I’ve ever seen play for New Zealand, the astonishing Aaron Smith?
When Tawera Kerr-Barlow went to La Rochelle last year the All Blacks selectors made Mitchell Drummond their new No 3 on the tour to Britain and France. In Drummond they were picking the Super Rugby player closest in style to Smith, who has revolutionised the position, by his attitude, that the No 9’s first duty is to feed the backs, and his passing skills, which make a bullet fired from a .303 look a little laboured.
But at the Crusaders this season Bryn Hall is the starter, not Drummond. The other halfback with a lot of Smith’s style, the Chiefs’ Brad Weber, back from a sickening injury, a broken thigh bone at the start of 2017, may yet be a contender too. But Drummond is about to turn 24, while Weber is 27, so time may favour the Cantabrian.
On the other hand, despite the Chiefs losing to the Hurricanes, the move of Damian McKenzie to first-five looks more and more effective, which starts to offset the loss of Lima Sopoaga to the London Wasps.
McKenzie has settled into the distribution role. A pass to Nathan Harris came to nothing because Harris had a brain fade and tried to throw a dummy with an unmarked wing outside him. But the pass itself was a thing of real beauty, threaded between defenders, and perfectly accurate.
McKenzie’s also making snap, but good decisions, which often involve ensuring an opposing defensive line can never relax for a moment. His running has never been less than fearless, and what’s even more impressive is that if he does hit a large brutish forward, and shudders to a halt, he appears impervious to harm.
(In passing, he only looks small on the field because this generation of players is, by and large, gigantic. At 1.77m McKenzie is exactly the average height for a Kiwi male, and just 1cm shorter than 1987 World Cup winning All Black Joe Stanley, who at the time was considered, quite rightly, a big centre.)
Despite his form he was outshone by Beauden Barrett, just as no lock on the field, no matter how hard he tried, could hope to match Brodie Retallick.
Why? Because Barrett and Retallick are in that rare group of players in a generation who are all-time greats. Barrett’s try showed the full range of his gifts, from the amazing scooping up of the ball on the run, to the perfect kick ahead, to the blistering pace to touch down.
Retallick and Sam Whitelock form one of the two most important combinations in the All Blacks along with Aaron Smith and Barrett. It’s no coincidence that without Retallick on the end of year tour, and Whitelock ROB JEFFERIES/GETTY IMAGES shattered after playing every minute of the Super Rugby season, the All Blacks struggled.
There are some very good locks happy to step up, but you don’t replace the world’s best with ease.
And then there’s one area where there’s an absolute logjam of talent, the back three.
Almost every country in the rugby world would leap at the chance to pick Ben Lam on the wing. What’s not to like? Speed, size (he weighs 105kg), great hands, and a terrific work-rate.
If there’s to be a Nehe MilnerSkudder type bolter for the June tests, Lam might be it.
But look at who’s already in the mix. Ben Smith is back, and looking brilliant. Then there’s Jordie Barrett, outstanding again on Friday night. Rieko Ioane is currently the best wing in the world, and Waisake Naholo is on fire. David Havili was in the All Blacks squad last year, and in case we’ve forgotten, Israel Dagg is due to be back soon too.
No, the All Blacks aren’t drawing on a bottomless pool, but it certainly is deep in some spots.
Mitchell Drummond has been supplanted this year as the starting halfback for the Crusaders by Bryn Hall.