Stick with SBW ahead of Laumape - for now
OPINION: Sonny Bill Williams’ biggest challenge isn’t getting his tackle height lower, it’s Ngani Laumape.
The Hurricanes No 12 has been the story of Super Rugby.
Damian McKenzie might be the player of Super Rugby but he signposted his talent with a superb 2016 and has simply carried on those level of performances.
But fewer would have seen Laumape improving so much to the point where he is the form No 12 in Super Rugby.
There are few better carriers of the ball but by the round-15 game against the Force in Perth you could start to see that he was developing into a 360-degree player.
First, there was some clever identification of space down the short side in concert with Jordie Barrett - vision that led to a Laumape try.
Then, in the same game he executed a nice wraparound play with Beauden Barrett than said plenty about how his team-mates see him - far from a onedimensional gainline crasher.
Still, it is one thing doing it against the Force, it is another doing it against the British and Irish Lions.
His performances against the tourists were not flawless - he was stripped by Dan Biggar at the end of the Hurricanes game and dropped a tough pass while in a strong attacking position for the All Blacks in the third test - but there is no doubt they marked his arrival as a player of significant promise for the All Blacks.
That form puts him in contention to start for the All Blacks against the Wallabies in the first Bledisloe test on August 19 but it doesn’t necessarily get him across the line.
Williams is a character who provokes emotions on a broad spectrum - from rage on the dark side to adulation on the light side.
But if you take the emotion out of it, Williams had been building back into some form. His game for the Blues against the Lions, in which he scored a try and set up the matchwinner, was his best performance since the 2015 World Cup final and he carried out his role well in the first test against the Lions, advancing the ball strongly close to the ruck and getting over the gainline (particularly when Ben Te’o was replaced).
Provided he is eligible for the first Bledisloe against the Wallabies in Sydney on August 19 and there is some confusion about whether his four-game ban will have been served by then - the All Blacks selectors have a decision to make.
Do they keep Laumape at No 12 on the basis that Williams’ illdiscipline was costly, or do they back the Blues’ midfielder to learn his lesson about tackle technique?
I would do the latter. Williams has gaps as a player - his kicking game is one of them - but when he pares his game back to his core attributes of powerful running on attack and a physical presence in defence, he has a big role to play throughout the Rugby Championship.
However, neither Williams nor Laumape are the All Blacks’ No 1 midfielder. That is Ryan Crotty. In the past four games the Crusaders and All Blacks have played without the injured Crotty, neither side has won.
Crotty’s influence has become quite profound. He will be one of the first names down for Bledisloe I, presumably in the No 13 jersey. His strength is making those around him better players.