Hurricanes winger Ben Lam has been a revelation this season, but looks unlikely to be in the All Black’s thinking for June. Scotty Stevenson discusses the reasons why, and what it says about how tough it is to make the team.
In Wellington, at least, they love him. Ben Lam, the big winger on the end of a superstar Hurricanes backline, is on course to make a mockery of his teammate Ngani Laumape’s season try-scoring record set last year. Laumape crossed for 15 tries in 2017. Ben Lam has scored 12 already, and it’s only May. That is his job, to finish what others have started, but that does not seem to be enough these days to take the next step up.
The All Blacks will play France in June, and while there is genuine concern about the lack of depth at loosehead prop – don’t be surprised if Wyatt Crockett’s ride into international retirement takes an abrupt U-turn – there are no such concerns with the outside backs. Jordie Barrett, Ben Smith, Rieko Ioane, Damian McKenzie, and Waisake Naholo are all likely to feature against the French. There is the return of Nehe Milner-Skudder to consider, too.
So where does that leave Lam? Seemingly nowhere near selection, which is quite the conundrum to have. Some will look at the list of names above, shrug their shoulders and ask, “well, who would you leave out to make room for him?” It’s a fair question. Both Ioane and Naholo have performed well for the All Blacks, and with Jordie Barrett back in the mix, Ben Smith will likely move to wing on a permanent basis for the national side. It’s a case of five into four don’t go, and Lam is at best the fifth in this particular mix.
There are others coming through who the All Blacks are also running the eye over as they prepare for this upcoming series and the all-important World Cup season. Solomon Alaimalo has been dazzling for the Chiefs this year, and Manasa Mataele is making good on his potential at the Crusaders. Add to the mix players such as David Havili, Seta Tamanivalu and Matt Duffie and Lam’s pathway to test match rugby seems a damn sight tougher than his pathway to the Super Rugby try line.
It is understandable that for the year’s first series the All Blacks selectors would prefer to choose players that have already been in the system. They have not the time nor the inclination in June to be acclimatising too many new faces to what they consider a very unique set of norms, even if that player is on a scoring tear like very few before him.
What is less understandable is the chatter around Ben Lam’s supposed deficiencies on defence – claims that Hurricanes Coach Chris Boyd dismissed after Saturday night’s match against the Lions during which Lam scored a hat trick. If those deficiencies do exist, they are not measured in his tackling percentage which, at 82%, is above all but one of his Hurricanes backline team mates in a list of those who have made 20 or more tackles this year. That list includes Jordie Barrett (77%), Beauden Barrett (75%), and Ngani Laumape (72%), all of whom are considered guarantees for All Blacks selection.
Perhaps it is unfair to compare Ben Lam’s defensive percentage with those who are working much closer to the gain line, so it would pay to also benchmark him against other wingers who have been widely tipped to get the nod ahead of him this June. That list includes Waisake Naholo (76%) and Rieko Ioane (76%). In fairness, Ioane has played out of position for much of the season, so we need to allow for that in this exercise.
There is also the assertion in some quarters that Lam may not be working hard enough off the ball, but if that is true (and as we don’t have access to GPS numbers, we can’t make much of an empirical case against the claim) then he certainly makes up for it when he has the ball in his hands. Apart from scoring those 12 tries, he also is only bettered by just one New Zealand winger – Manasa Mataele – in average gain per carry. At 9.18 metres per carry, that’s an awful lot of momentum for a team to enjoy.
Oh, and there was that other chatter floating around that he is not so good under the high ball. I’m not entirely sure which teams are dumb enough to kick to him in the first place, or whether we also make mention here of overall turnover rate, but if so, here goes. Ben Lam has turned the ball over a staggering… two times. All year. If those two drops are from high kicks then it would be punitive to say he is no good at catching. In fact, it would be downright spurious.
Just to add some context, Lam has also won five turnovers, more than any winger bar Waisake Naholo, who has a net return of zero based on the fact he has also lost the ball eight times. Damian McKenzie has turned the ball over 21 times – the most of any New Zealand outside back, followed by Alaimalo (19). Also on the list of those who have lost the ball more than Ben Lam are: Jordie Barrett, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Matt Duffie, David Havili, Rieko Ioane, Ben Smith and Seta Tamanivalu, otherwise known as every other player ahead of him in the All Blacks pecking order.
We all know that the All Blacks have their strategies in place for selection and are already a long way down the road as far as the French series is concerned. That Lam may not make it should not be cause for alarm, and should not dishearten the man himself. He will be able to accept whatever comes his way, except claims he’s not good enough. Because at another time, in another scenario, he most certainly would be.
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