OPINION: One of the most exciting things about Super Rugby’s derby matches is knowing that some players who are lining up on opposite sides of the field are also competing for test rugby jerseys for later in the season.
In Saturday night’s match between the Chiefs and the Blues, there were plenty of tantalising match ups across the field.
All six starting front rowers have represented New Zealand before, with all four props appearing for New Zealand last year. The Blues certainly had the early ascendancy, winning a scrum penalty in the first few minutes of the game. This dominance didn’t let up throughout the match, with the pair of Oga Tu’ungafasi and Karl Tu’inukuafe continually getting the best of Nepo Laulala and Angus Ta’avao.
It would be a big surprise to not see the former three players in the black jersey once more this year, but Ta’avao is probably a few injuries away from representing the All Blacks again in the future.
The second row also saw two behemoths do battle, with test regular Brodie Retallick up against a man who will be on the edges of the All Blacks squad, Patrick Tuipulotu.
Chiefs captain Retallick certainly stood up in defence for his team, making a match-high 19 tackles, while Tuipulotu was more prevalent on attack, carrying for over 30 metres.
In the loose forwards, it was more a case of who could possibly make a bolt into the All Blacks squad later in the season. Akira Ioane was at his destructive best, carrying for 60 metres – the most of any forward in the game, and only slightly less than Chiefs halfback Brad Weber, who made more metres than any other Chiefs player, courtesy of his intercept.
Both blindside flankers, Luke Jacobson and Tom Robinson, have also been putting up their hands for higher honours but may have to wait another year before they get their chance.
Perhaps the most interesting contest, however, was in the midfield, where All Blacks super-sub Anton Lienert-Brown lined up against New Zealand centurion Ma’a Nonu.
For the better part of 2018, the All Blacks midfield debate effectively consisted of who should start in the centres out of Jack Goodhue, Ryan Crotty and Sonny Bill Williams. Lienert-Brown, for all his talents, seemed to be primarily viewed by the selectors as an impact player who could change the game off the bench, not a regular starter.
At times, the wider public seemed to forget about Lienert-Brown altogether – perhaps viewed as a good candidate to make the wider squad due to his versatility, but not on the same level as the other three players.
Although his performances in Super Rugby this year have been of a high standard, Lienert-Brown put on a superlative showing on the weekend, sending a timely reminder to Steve Hansen and Grant Fox in the stands that perhaps he could be better utilised by the All Blacks in the 12 or 13 jersey, instead of at 23.
When running your eye over the midfield options for New Zealand, Lienert-Brown strikes as the most well-balanced of the players.
Williams, the most experienced at test level, is revered for his offloading game – arguably the best that the world has ever seen. When Williams is charging ahead, you practically need two players to keep him under control – one to take out his legs and one to bind his arms and prevent the inevitable offload.
Anton Lienert-Brown also possesses this ability in spades, second in the competition in offloads made to Israel Folau. The pair, with 18 and 19 offloads respectively, are comfortably ahead of the chasing pack, with Jaguares flanker Pablo Matera the next closest on 12.
Crotty is perhaps the most dependable of the All Blacks’ midfield options, without some of the flash and X-factor that the others possess. Lienert-Brown, now with over 30 caps at international level and almost twice that for the Chiefs, is a reliable defender, tackling at 85% this season, and a great reader of the play.
Perhaps Lienert-Brown’s greatest advantage over his competitors is his diverse skillset. Would any of the other centre options for New Zealand be able to put in the audacious and accurate cross-field kick that Lienert-Brown pulled off against the Blues during the weekend?
Lienert-Brown is also deceptively quick and wouldn’t be out of place on the wing – a position he has spent some time in for the Chiefs. Given that players will need to be adaptable during the pool stages of the World Cup, Lienert-Brown’s pace would be invaluable.
Arguably the only area where Lienert-Brown was shown up on Saturday evening was when trying to take down the powerhouse that is Ma’a Nonu – himself making a late push for a test berth with the All Blacks. If failing to tackle Nonu prevented you from being selected for a national team, however, many a centre’s career would have died a long time ago.
Much has been said about Nonu’s chances of reclaiming the All Blacks jersey he forfeited four years ago when he left New Zealand, with most in agreement that it would take injuries to some of the incumbents to earn him a spot on the plane to Japan. If Nonu continues to play as he has been so far this season, however, then Hansen and co may be forced to rethink their squad.
In Nonu the All Blacks would be able to utilise an attribute that few of the other candidates have: raw power. Ngani Laumape, who seems to be fifth in the midfield pecking order, is another player with outrageous strength. Compared to Nonu, however, he lacks a wider array of skills and is simply less experienced.
New Zealand lost a number of elder statesmen after the last World Cup. In the final in England, the All Blacks fielded a team boasting no fewer than 982 caps in the starting XV and 357 caps on the bench. The team fielded by the All Blacks in the last big match they played, against Ireland on 2018’s end of year tour, had 826 caps in the starting XV and only 230 on the bench. Adding someone like Nonu into the mix would add one more player to the team who has experienced all the highs and lows of test rugby – a player who can handle the pressure of knockout World Cup matches.
Nonu’s game has developed significantly in the last few years. He may not be quite as powerful as he was in 2015, but he is still up there with the best – and his passing and kicking have come in leaps and bounds since he left NZ’s shores. It’s starting to get to the point now where Nonu’s form is demanding his inclusion in the next All Blacks team.
The Blues and the Chiefs treated viewers to a fantastic showcase of skills and speed on Saturday night, but for men like Steve Hansen, the more important thing would have been the various head to heads on display. Anton Lienert-Brown and Ma’a Nonu, in particular, gave Hansen a timely reminder that the starting midfield berths for the World Cup shouldn’t be just a three-horse race.
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