All Blacks’ depth of tal­ent not un­lim­ited

Plethora of op­tions for se­lec­tors in the out­side backs con­trasts sharply with thin pick­ings at half­back.

Sunday News - - OPINION -

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.

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