All Blacks enjoy an embarrassment of riches
May 14, 2014
Ben Smith has to be in the starting side, Craig Dowd believes © Getty Images
Even three weeks out from the first Test against England it is obvious from the naming of the All Blacks wider training squad this week that the back three are going to provide some headaches for the selectors.
All Blacks Training Group
Which one of Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Cory Jane or Julian Savea is going to miss a place in the side? Who gets the fullback position: Dagg or Smith? Would you have Jane and Savea starting? Or would you have Savea and Smith starting with Jane on the bench?
It could be they will start with Dagg at fullback with Savea and Smith on the wings and Jane on the bench. You have to ask: who would have thought two years ago that Jane would be on the bench?
Savea and Smith have to start the Test, but it is a case of where Smith starts: at fullback or wing? That aside the team picks itself, fitness allowing.
It was really disappointing that two key players for their teams, Charles Piutau for the Blues and Luke Romano for the Crusaders, won't be available for the All Blacks.
Piutau would have been an absolute dead cert to make that All Blacks training squad, as he's had a good Super season; at least his injury is not as bad as that of Romano, who is effectively out for the year. Romano has had a bad run with injuries but his game at All Blacks level is such that when he plays well the All Blacks play well. He's the hard man in that forward pack, and he has taken over that Brad Thorn role really well.
Romano will be missed, but his absence has created an opportunity for a youngster like Patrick Tuipulotu. The Blues lock is a young kid with a lot of potential. To rise from a 19-year-old making his debut in ITM Cup last year and to carry that season on to be named in the All Blacks training squad, not yet 12 months into his professional career, is a sign there is a lot more to come from this kid. He's got good aerial skills, he's a big unit, he's a good lineout forward and obviously a very strong scrummager and he's ticking all the boxes. If you go through and look at his weaknesses, you would have to say his inexperience is one. But he's improving that every day. He has got a lot of potential.
Patrick Tuipulotu has come a long way in 12 months © Getty Images
The hooking situation is an interesting, but good on the All Blacks selectors for drawing a line in the sand and saying they want to have a look at Liam Coltman and Nathan Harris and to see how they develop.
You've got to start somewhere and I've always believed you can manufacture good tight forwards. They don't have to have X-factor. They need work ethic; if they have got that, you can make them bigger and you can teach them the arts of throwing to lineouts and scrummaging - both of which are learned skills. Getting those young fellows into that environment is key for both of them, and Tuipolotu as well.
There was no surprise he selectors went with Malakai Fekitoa. He has put his hand up, and we observed some weeks back that he would be in the mix. He is someone who is going to really push the incumbents, and that is what the All Blacks need.
Malakai Fekitoa has put his hand up all season © Getty Images
There are no surprises in the squad, especially after the weekend's injuries, and it is hard to find any players who could be regarded as unlucky. It is as good an All Black team as we could pick, and it is very strong.
The strength of New Zealand rugby has also been further illustrated this week, with another round of players signalling their departure from New Zealand.
There always will be guys who leave; that's the nature of professional rugby now. There're opportunities everywhere.
Tyler Bleyendaal will have looked at his pathway at the Crusaders, and he will have seen Colin Slade ahead of him; Tom Taylor is there, too, and Dan Carter. Then nationally, there are Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett. You go through the list of five-eighths and he hasn't made any inroads towards getting higher honours, and he's not starting at Super Rugby level.
There are good opportunities out in the rugby world for a good No.10 and New Zealand rugby has never been stronger in that position. He's obviously looked at his career long and hard, and Munster is an opportunity on his career path.
He could well come back in the future, just like Jerome Kaino has; and the latest rumour I have heard is that Richard Kahui is coming back.
The trend seems to be go away, make a bit of money, come back, push for higher honours, increase your CV, and see what you can break. And that's fantastic for any school leaver thinking he wants a career as a professional rugby player who, if he does everything right and works hard - because talent will only get you so far, you still need to do the work - can get around the world and make a bit of money because there is life after rugby to worry about as well.
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