One of the objectives for Steve Hansen ahead of the All Blacks northern tour is to confirm which of the incumbents and fringe players will likely make up the core of the squad for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Some key positions are lacking in depth of quality, particularly at halfback. Why else would a departing Tawera Kerr-Barlow be on the plane? However, it’s the inconclusive performances of the All Blacks midfield that is under the microscope.

Ryan Crotty is a first choice selection but which is his best position and who should be his midfield partner?

The Crusaders play Crotty at second five, and the All Blacks play him at centre. They’re both similar positions yet have different roles in attack and defence. The position that Crotty plays dictates who becomes his running partner.

There is no shortage of contenders, but none so far have made a compelling case to be considered an automatic selection.

Ngani Laumape, Sonny Bill Williams and a fit-again Charles Ngatai are contenders for the no.12 jersey. Jack Goodhue and Anton Lienert-Brown are rivals for the no.13 jersey. Not only does Hansen need to settle on his no.1 combination but he needs to provide them sufficient opportunity to develop as a unit.

Can Anton Lienert-Brown find his way into the midfield? © Copyright Photo: Andrew Cornaga / www.Photosport.nz
Can Anton Lienert-Brown find his way into the midfield?
© Copyright Photo: Andrew Cornaga / www.Photosport.nz

The best periods of All Blacks rugby in the past have featured settled midfield combinations. Taylor and Stanley, Little and Bunce, Mauger and Umaga, Nonu and Smith. Their strength was drawn from being greater than the sum of their parts. That is what is missing from the All Blacks midfield at the moment.

Time is still on Hansen’s side, settling on the right midfield balance can click as quickly and smoothly as when you know you’ve found your lifetime partner in love.

It’s when you force a combination together that it feels like a development project that you hope will pay off.

Author: Sam Taulelei

I discovered my passion for watching sport later in life.

As a kid I enjoyed playing sport more than watching it on TV. Then I discovered the power of books and would lose many hours reading about different sports and participants. My passion for reading and writing led me to a career in…….IT, yep I know.

Anyway it wasn’t until the emergence of this little thing called the internet that I rekindled my first love of sport and writing about it. I have a natural curiosity and love to solve the question of why did something happen as opposed to just writing about what happened.

I’m Wellington born and raised now living across the ditch.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Regarding the halfback situation, I want someone to educate me. I thought Perenara had a fantastic Super season and did nothing wrong for the All Blacks this year. Yet, people still think he is not the natural heir to Aaron Smith. Why? What is he lacking? His pass from the setpiece might be marginally slower, but he is outstanding at taking the quick opportunities and reading the game. Positionally he is in the right places, always looking for work.
    Regarding the midfield, I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment that the All Blacks look unsettled there. I am concerned about Sonny Bill’s value two years from now. The opposition is reading him very well lately and I am afraid without another dimension to his game he will be merely solid, rather than the spark we need at the back.

    • Willem – TJ and Aaron Smith are very different players. I think TJ is a more “brilliant” player in an individual sense. He has an eye for openings, backs up superbly, is more physical defensively – you know when he is playing well. Aaron is different in that when he plays well, you almost don’t notice he is there. He really directs the team attacks and his superb, quick, accurate passing creates opportunities for the outside backs without drawing attention to himself. You don’t notice it so much (except on the replays) and in this respect, he is more of a team-player. I would also suggest that in front-foot games, Aaron is better – which is why he starts becasue that is the attitude the ABs will open with, but when games get tough, TJ is better – he has a lot more presence. Although I like TJ, I would always start with Aaron just for his passing and generalship. However, both would improve if they could shut their mouths – alas this seems to be a halfback disease.

  2. Disagree with you on this. I think Sonny is playing well, John Kirwan has some good thoughts on the position and his performances on the last episode of Feed the Backs and Steven & Gareth did a good video on the changes in his game this year. One of our best tacklers & offloaders. He offers size and skills that compliment Crotty well. The real issue is who else can come on and offer the same as Sonny if injured- ALB is a pretty good bench player for Crotty.

  3. I’ve not been as critical of SBW as others have been, defensively he’s improved his tackling technique immensely since his red card against the Lions and does a lot of cleaning up that is unrecognised by critics and commentators.

    Hansen’s comments in defence of Sonny bear thought as well. Sonny concentrated on sevens for a year and then suffered an achilles injury. He was injured again when he returned to action for the Blues so has not played as much rugby as others and is still working back to top form.

    Regardless of individual form, the 10-12-13 axis for the All Blacks isn’t operating as accurately or consistently on attack. For a team that has such an accurate lineout and scrum, they’ve scored very few setpiece tries this year. Depth, alignment, running angles, passing and timing has been a bit askew.

    Regarding Perenara, he did have a fantastic Super season but he hasn’t transferred that form to the All Blacks as well as he did last year when he finished as the incumbent.

    Last year he convinced detractors because his decision making was more accurate and he used his strengths to complement the All Blacks game plan. He admitted in an interview last year that he finally realised how the Hurricanes want him to play is different to how the All Blacks play. He thought he could just play the same game at test level. His physicality and running game is his point of difference to Aaron Smith and some of his passing has been inaccurate which has let himself down.

  4. I think Hansen has clearly decided that SBW and Crotty are his top pairing, to be played in the big games if possible. Superficially at least they are a similar partnership to Nonu and Conrad, and it has served the All Blacks well to have power at 12 and organisation at 13. They are both experienced too.

    They aren’t really firing yet, but they are a new combination and the coaches are still working on them. They have nearly two more years to get it right.

  5. There are a myrias of issues facing Hansen in the NZ midfield.
    First, is the vacuum left by Nonu/Conrad without true understudies. I think Hansen had SBW written-in to replace Nonu, but his form has been inconsistent, his discipline has been questionable and finally, I think he is on the wrong side of young. Despite what Hansen says in public, he must have concerns. I’m not sure if Crotty was the player Hansen expected to emerge as Conrad’s successor, but he has certainly shown the intelligence and game-reading skills in the manner of Conrad. But, is this the future? Conrad is the past, after all.
    Second is the wealth of potential talent available – Lienart-Brown, Laumape, Aso, Ngatai, Goodhue, Jordie, and I’m sure there are a couple I’ve missed. They all have strengths and weaknesses, but it would be fair to say that they are all of a likeness in terms of recent performances – some outstanding, lots of good ones, and the occasional clanger. There have been no clear-cut choices.
    Third has been the lack of opportunity to trial them. This has been due to two major circumstances – the Lion’s tour (with the pressure to win games), and injuries (plus suspensions!) meaning there was almost a different combination for each game. Familiarity, fluency and coherency have been understandably lacking.
    Fourth, and last, is that the 12/13 positions are one of maturity. Not only do you need players with talent and potential, but players with exposure to test-level rugby and high-stake outcomes in which to build experience and develop composure.

    I think Hansen has done as good a job as possible in the circumstances and has introduced a pool of about 6 contenders for the coming year/ next 12-15 tests in which a shortlist of RWC prospects can emerge. Personally, I think SBW is too old and should be slowly weaned out in the coming year as new players are brought in. Although I have doubts over his pace and “flair”, I think Crotty should stay for this RWC cycle, but we need to be looking for a longer-term successor to him as well.

    Personally, I would like to see an injection of pace brought back into the 13 role (as it had in my day) and the emphasis of “organisation” move inwards to 12. No candidate for 12 or 13 should have any question about defending ability – if you can’t tackle anyone regardless of size, you shouldn’t be in the team.

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