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The All Blacks need a Jerome Kaino contingency plan

By Jamie Wall
The past and future of the number 6 jersey? (Photo: Getty Images)

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The first injury crisis has hit the upcoming Lions vs All Blacks series – although calling it a crisis is probably a bit of a stretch, writes Jamie Wall.

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77-test All Blacks blindside Jerome Kaino is set to go under the knife for a knee injury suffered against the Hurricanes a couple of weeks ago, putting him out for at least the next six weeks. The worst case scenario could see him missing at least the first test on the 24th of June.

Everyone kind of expected Kaino to cash up and go to Japan full-time after the 2015 Rugby World Cup, so it’s been a nice little bonus having him stick around for at least this series. The All Blacks have employed some trademark forward thinking in regards to the number 6 jersey, though, putting Liam Squire and Elliott Dixon into the test arena last season. If either of them fell over, there’s also Liam Messam and Steven Luatua with test experience. Failing that there’s Jordan Taufua or the guy who embodies the term ‘great Super Rugby Player’, Brad Shields.

So, like I said, as far as crises go, it’s hardly up there in the ‘Cuban Missile’ category.

It does, however, open up the intriguing possibility of shelving the traditional All Blacks approach of having a bigger, tight-forward type blindside in favour of two fetching ball runners. Namely, Sam Cane and Ardie Savea, operating as left and right rather than open and blindside.

The case for taking this South African approach to the sides of the scrum would be purely aesthetic, given the wealth of talent the selectors can choose from. Basically, it’s the best chance we’ve got of seeing as much Ardie Savea as we possibly can.

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The only New Zealand player since Tana Umaga with his own personal chant has been on fire for the Hurricanes this season. Chances are the majority of conversations that include the name ‘Savea’ these days will be about him, not Julian. However, Cane’s methodical consistency and (if you squint sideways when he’s wearing tape) resemblance to Richie McCaw has seen him top of the All Blacks depth chart at openside.

So why not let them both loose against the Lions, if just for the first test? Ardie’s ability with ball in hand would light up the clearly signposted Lions game plan of rush defence and stodgy kicking by exploiting the gaps around the ruck. Meanwhile, Cane can get back to work injuring as many Irishmen as he possibly can. It wouldn’t be a Lions tour to New Zealand without a bit of that.

As it stands, Kaino will likely have plenty of time to make it back for the first test, but that doesn’t render the above argument a completely moot point. Back in 2005, the third, meaningless test saw the All Blacks bring in Luke McAlister for Dan Carter at first five. The sometimes maligned McAlister played possibly his best game in a black jersey, while outside him a young Conrad Smith got his first start in a major test.

The All Blacks ended up breezing home 38-19 in that test, bringing the curtain down on a 3-0 whitewash and setting Smith up for a long and illustrious test career (McAlister not so much). Will the third test of the 2017 series end up being another chance for the All Blacks to try out a few new faces and combinations?

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Unless Suzie the waitress comes out of retirement… probably.

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