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.

Sunday News - - OPINION -

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.

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