No Lam in the All Blacks but step up captain Sam
The Crusaders captain looks like the perfect choice to replaced the injured Kieran Read for the France series.
THE secret of selecting,’’ the only undefeated All Black coach, Sir Fred Allen, once told me, ‘‘is not what the player’s doing now. It’s what he’s capable of doing in the future.’’
On that basis there are some stars of Super Rugby who may not be board when the first All Blacks squad of the season is named next month. Take as a prime example Ben Lam, who has been dynamic on the wing for the Hurricanes this year.
As a finisher he’s brilliant. Big and strong (at 105kg he’s slightly heavier than Julian Savea was when Savea first made the All Blacks), and as fast as you’d expect a former sevens star to be. If Lam could establish that his Mumor Dad once watched Coronation Street Eddie Jones would be investigating his eligibility for England.
But as good as he is, Lam faces some big roadblocks to All Black selection. For a start there will almost certainly be only five players in the squad to cover the back three.
Put ticks immediately beside Ben Smith, Jordie Barrett, Rieko Ioane, and Waisake Naholo. On Friday night there were flashes of brilliance from a star of the 2015 World Cup victory, Nehe MilnerSkudder. And we haven’t even mentioned Israel Dagg.
Steve Hansen’s selection panel showed, when the twitterati were baying for the dropping of an out of sorts Dan Carter early in the 2015 season, they believe that form is temporary and class is permanent.
‘‘You can’t keep all the old guys,’’ Hansen told me at the start of the 2015 season, ‘‘but you can’t get rid of all the old guys either. You have to have that experience to win tests.’’
If Milner-Skudder doesn’t suffer another in the miserable run of injuries he’s had to overcome, expect him to be the fifth man in the backfield quintet.
And if, as can always happen in the brutally physical world of Super Rugby, the call does go out for a newcomer on the wing, that man may well not be Lam, but the Chiefs’ Solomon Alaimalo.
Alaimalo has the edge on Lam in the air, and if, at 99kg, he’s not quite as strong, he’s hardly fragile either. He doesn’t suffer by comparison for speed, and he’s quicksilver on his feet.
In other words, he perfectly fits the template of broad ranging skills that serves Ben Smith, Dagg, Jordie Barrett, and Ioane so well. On the other hand Lam’s undoubted gifts are more concentrated in the ability to beat a man one on one.
Talking of men performing in Super Rugby, back-rower Akira Ioane manages, in the Blues, where the inability to beat a local team must be soul sapping, to work on the one area he can struggle with, taking the ball up directly into the hard defence channels.
Ioane is so stunningly fast that his natural instinct is to seek to fend, spin and step into space, so he can stretch out and run.
But look at the men the current All Black panel favour at No.8. Kieran Read can range wide, but when the need arises, he’ll make the hard, ugly yards too. Contact looks so natural to another candidate for the spot, Liam Squire, you could picture him at primary school asking to be the tackler, not the runner, in bullrush.
More bash should secure Akira Ioane’s All Black future, and he is so talented it’d be a surprise if he missed the June squad.
Another big decision will be over who will captain the side in the injury enforced absence of Read.
Ben Smith is the vice-captain, and captains the Highlanders, but as highly respected as he is by his peers and the coaching staff, a fullback captaining the All Blacks would be a very unusual choice.
Tana Umaga, it’s true, did an excellent job leading from the midfield, but the preference, sensibly, would be for the leader to be as close as possible, or to be part of, the game controlling first five-halfback-No.8 axis. Think Richie McCaw and Read.
For that reason the most likely captaincy candidate is lock Sam Whitelock, an extraordinary leader for the Crusaders in their Super Rugby title victory last year. When Read couldn’t play on the end of season test with Wales, Whitelock was the man selected as captain.
Flanker Sam Cane, whose quiet charisma has more than a touch of the X-factor Sir Brian Lochore brought to leadership, could be relied on to not only play his heart out, as he always does, PHOTOSPORT but to also, as a clever, thinking player, provide loyal back-up to Whitelock.
Could the All Blacks rely on Whitelock if the French as they’re always capable of doing, suddenly found a fifth gear in one of the three Junes tests?
Think of the final at Ellis Park. With three minutes to go the Lions, down by eight points, win an attacking lineout in the Crusaders’ 22.
A converted try would put them in the nightmare one point zone, where a dropped goal, or a penalty, wins them the title.
Conventional wisdom says the Crusaders stay on the ground and defend. Whitelock knows the Lions have a fantastic maul. ‘‘We talked about it all week,’’ he’d say later. ‘‘One way to stop it was to get them in the air.’’
So Whitelock decided to attack. Lifted by Wyatt Crockett he soars in the air and wins the ball. The game is basically over.
His coach Scott Robertson sums Whitelock’s actions up perfectly. ‘‘It’s one thing to practise it, and another thing to be actually doing it in a game, and having the balls to go, ‘Righto, we’re going to get up, and if we miss they’ll probably score.’
‘‘Sam made the call to get up, and I think it shows how courageous he is as a captain.’’
Sam Whitelock leads the Crusaders against the Lions in Johannesburg.