It is not really a good sign when your first instinct upon seeing the new-look All Black back division from number 12 out and the make-up of the backs on the bench is, ‘worry’.
And it seemed so unlikely just a month ago, but to paraphrase an old Simon and Garfunkel hit, the All Blacks selectors lonely eyes have now turned to Israel Dagg. Although it also begs the question- why have those very eyes not also turned in the direction of Nehe Milner-Skudder for a starting or at least a bench position?
Surer than the Red Army droning out their god-awful “Liiions” dirge, so Dagg, and to a lesser extent Julian Savea, will be expected to take the lead role in defensive organisation, especially on kick-defence formation.
Malakai Fekitoa on the bench instead of Milner-Skudder seems the wrong call. Are the selectors becoming too impact-driven when a closer focus on injury-enforced substitutions could be warranted in light of the strength of the opponents? To attempt to prove that the wise men should have gone with Milner-Skudder on the bench and not Fekitoa, let’s analyse potential injury-enforced early match retirements.
Firstly, Milner-Skudder can cover either fullback or wing equally well. He is a proven test star- a 2015 World Cup winner and was the best winger at that tournament. The bigger the match, the better he seems to get. And you can’t put a price on experience or on the call of playing people in their rightful position.
Working on the assumption that most knowledgeable and non-one eyed All Black fans regard it as imperative that Beauden Barrett should be in the number 10 jersey for as much of the match as possible no matter what; if Dagg then suddenly exits, there is no-one with even a modicum of Test or even provincial experience within all the other backline candidates to go on to the right wing.
We are not facing Canada here, an arrogant-smelling reshuffle with the scenario of a Laumape, Fekitoa or even TJ placed out on the wing if a second back needed to go off, would be a potential recipe for disaster. Think about that situation for a second- we would have Jordie Barrett on test debut at fullback and a player completely unfamiliar with the modern-day requirements of the back three trying to help him out- in a match of massive significance. Good luck with that.
In the event of Laumape or Leinert-Brown succumbing, Jordie Barrett would go into the centres, with Milner-Skudder to come on at fullback. Remember that Jordie Barrett is only in his first season of top-level Rugby as a fullback (that is another worry in itself), and actually made his name in the midfield in last year’s Mitre 10 Cup for Canterbury, and was as well that whole competition’s player of the year. And oh yes, guess who would be playing directly inside him if that transpired? That’s correct, his telepathic older brother. That surely wouldn’t be the worst injury-necessitated outcome in the world.
To the action itself, it’s difficult to see how things won’t get a bit spiteful in the first twenty. But those involved in any set-to will be very aware in their subconscious of the high stakes involved. So once again, as in scores of other big games, no matter how riled up anyone gets don’t expect much more than handbags at three paces.
firstname.lastname@example.org (Paul M)