By Scott MacLean
Earlier we took a look through the All Blacks options amongst the forwards ahead of the Super Rugby season. This time it’s the turn of the back division.
Halfback: One place where the selectors don’t have any headaches, as all three members of the RWC squad – Aaron Smith, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, and TJ Perenara – return. Smith is the main man heading into the season, while Kerr-Barlow grasped his chances at the RWC to edge ahead of Perenara who perhaps ran out of steam after being terrific during Super Rugby last year. There are more contenders on the horizon, albeit with caveats; Brad Weber (Chiefs) and Taranaki pair Jamison Gibson-Park and Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi (both Hurricanes) all have an incumbent in their way to regular significant playing time, though Weber has the distinction of having made his All Blacks debut in the game in Apia. Game time shouldn’t be an issue for Blues pair Bryn Hall and former schoolboy star Sam Nock but the weight of expectation could be, and at the other end of the spectrum the old dependable hands of Andy Ellis – who started that Samoa match – are still about.
First-five: Not that long ago, the prospect of life without Dan Carter conjured up all sorts of visions of dark gloom. Yet now following his departure to the bright lights of Paris (and despite those of Colin Slade and Tom Taylor as well to elsewhere in France) our stocks at #10 are arguably as good as they have ever been, yet each has question marks:
- Can Aaron Cruden show a complete recovery from the torn ACL that cost him a RWC place?
- Can Lima Sopoaga repeat the form that saw him make an outstanding All Blacks debut at Ellis Park and named NZ’s Super Rugby Player of the Year after leading the Highlanders to the title?
- Can Beauden Barrett show he can take control of a match and kick goals consistently, or is he destined to be the cover wearing the #23 jersey every game?
Then there is the next tier. Ihaia West is an undoubted talent and has the challenge of sparking the Blues, Otere Black didn’t look overawed when he filled in for Barrett last season, Damian McKenzie will again understudy Cruden at the Chiefs, while brother Marty moves south to the Crusaders where he’ll vie for playing time with Richie Mo’unga and Fijian Ben Volavola. Oh, and there is the bloke that kicked that penalty goal at Eden Park too.
Midfield: Not only does Steve Hansen & Co have the job of filling both the Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith shaped holes in midfield, they are unlikely to have the services of Sonny Bill Williams who is on the Sevens crusade. That leaves Malakai Fekitoa as the sole RWC squad member available, and that alone would make him the early favourite for the #13 jersey. Inside of him Charlie Ngatai – who debuted off the bench in Apia last year – could be in line to claim the #12 jersey with another solid Super Rugby campaign on the back of two good NPC seasons for Taranaki. If the lack of experience that combination possesses is an issue then Ryan Crotty is an option, as is the returning Rene Ranger. A bolter possibility was Fekitoa’s teammate, Richard Buckman, but he’ll miss all of Super Rugby after injuring his shoulder scoring in Hong Kong. Maybe former Warrior Ngani Laumape plays himself into that position. Robbie Fruean’s health issues seem to preclude him from higher honours while Reiko Ioane, like his brother primarily on Seven’s duties, is one for the future.
Outside backs: In terms of players with international experience the stocks across the back three spots are in pretty good shape. Ben Smith, Julian Savea, Nehe Milner-Skudder, and Waisake Naholo represent the incumbent group, though the latter two have only a handful of matches under their belts, while Barrett’s (and Smith’s) versatility provides cover. The two jokers, Cory Jane and Israel Dagg, both believe their international careers aren’t yet over and will push for recalls, while Ranger has experience on the wings and George Moala is another who’s first taste of international rugby came in Apia. While it’s likely that that group will provide the men for the job you only need to look back at Milner-Skudder’s rise to know that players can literally come out of nowhere. So can Tevita Li deliver on his promise, can Lolagi Visinia, Pita Ahki or James Lowe take a step forward, or will another ex-leaguie, former Storm winger and now Blue Matt Duffie, follow the same path?
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