When Ben Smith was suddenly relegated to the All Black periphery this season, most fans’ reaction, including mine, wasn’t far removed from this:
It wasn’t immediately noticeable earlier in the season that Smith had lost his mojo that much. But had a long list of concussions finally taken their toll on that extra five percent of sharpness and brilliance which had seen him as a lock-in for around five seasons on the right wing or at fullback- and even as a classy operator at centre? In addition, what in the name of World Cup disasters were Steve Hansen and the selectors doing in taking a future All Black Hall of Famer in Beauden Barrett out of the position he was made for on the sports field? I, for one, thought all along they were lining themselves up for the Dead Man’s hand.
Something was already being shuffled by ‘Shag’ though. Because when you soberly read Smith’s unfortunate trail of knocks, putting the ‘Let’s guess the All Blacks line-up’ puzzle together in fact had a few clues in its wording. I was just too myopic, or blindly loyal to B Smith, to see them.
Most were incredulous at the time of Smith’s demotion and Barrett’s move to fullback. But something got forgotten about in that indignation (hand up here). Precisely how essential it was going to be to have a deadeye goalkicker on board for any tight Rugby World Cup games. Hence the sudden Ace in the deck, Richie Mo’unga.
And crucially, from perhaps even more than a few months back, Ben Smith’s gradual decline probably cemented Steve Hansen’s thoughts on how Mo’unga’s undeniable talent at first receiver, combined with the necessity of needing a more consistent kicker than BB (and the potential of the dual playmaker scenario), was a hand that was just too hard to resist a calculated gamble on come World Cup time.
Hansen, Foster and Fox of course made the ‘Smith out-Mo’unga in’ bet exclusively with their heads, not their hearts. Seasoned, clever gamblers always stake their money dispassionately. Moreover Ben Smith’s list of concussions may ultimately have affected him more than anyone actually realised, apart from possibly Shag and the selectors themselves.
Who’d ever have guessed the once-taciturn, dry-as-a-bone Mosgiel-born super coach with the dodgy-sounding nickname would turn into such a risk taker- Hansen and his men have played exactly the right hand thus far. Their soothsayer status is deserved in view of how things have gone for the All Blacks on the eve of the semi-final. In the mighty Shag we trust.
Gotta know when to hold ‘em, when to fold them…
NZ to defeat England by a 1-6 margin.