Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty’s departures following the 2019 Rugby World Cup were set to open the door for Ngani Laumape and Braydon Ennor to make a return to the New Zealand national side. Rieko Ioane’s form in the Blues’ midfield, however, has thrown a spanner in the works for new head coach Ian Foster.

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One of the greatest debates concerning the All Blacks squad in the lead up to last year’s showpiece tournament was which two players should occupy the midfield spots.

Williams, Crotty, Jack Goodhue and Anton Lienert-Brown all had their strengths while Laumape had earned a few caps since debuting against the British and Irish Lions in 2017 and Ennor had received a call-up for the first All Blacks squad of the year on the back of his form on the wing for the Crusaders.

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Blues coach Leon MacDonald and Highlanders coach Aaron Mauger discuss the outcome of their round three clash in Super Rugby Aotearoa.

The former four were somewhat unsurprisingly selected in the squad to travel to Japan – they were the favoured quartet during the years leading up to the World Cup.

Come the knockout stages of the competition, when there was no more time for rest or rotation, the young combination of Lienert-Brown and Goodhue were handed the midfield berths.

Williams, 34, and Crotty, 31, were given an opportunity to combine in the bronze play-off after New Zealand succumbed to England in the semi-finals in what was their farewell match – but that won’t have changed anyone’s expectations about the preferred midfield pairing.

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With Williams and Crotty contracted overseas, there are now two more spots open in the All Blacks centres.

Laumape has been banging on the door for some time now and would likely have been on the plane to Japan if a fan vote had been taken to decide the squad. While the former Warrior perhaps hasn’t got quite as complete a game as Lienert-Brown or Goodhue, he offers a massive point of difference – the ability to steamroll through tackles.

In 2018, then-coach Steve Hansen suggested that Laumape needed to work on his communication if he were to lock down a spot in the national side.

“We want him to spend some time with a little bit less pressure, working on his ability to help his first-five control the game,” Hansen said after Laumape missed out on selection for the All Blacks Rugby Championship squad.

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“With Ngani, we just want him to have more of a voice, and to learn how to use that, and to be more confident in using it — rather than just being out there and doing his thing. It’s about seeing the bigger picture.”

It’s been almost two years since that advice was passed on to Laumape and with the Hurricanes now running with a relatively green first five in the form of Jackson Garden-Bachop, it couldn’t be any more important.

Laumape has also been working on his kicking. While we haven’t seen too many massive punts from the Manawatu man, his short-range game has been impressive. Still, in the current climate, fullbacks take on the role of second playmaker more than the inside centre — but it’s a useful skill for all players to have nonetheless.

Perhaps Laumape’s biggest work-on must be his passing. It’s not poor by any means but it’s also not a weapon. Ma’a Nonu, perhaps New Zealand’s greatest-ever midfielder, created havoc for opposition defenders because they never knew if he was going to run straight at them or send a looping pass out to support runners in wider channels. It wasn’t a skill that Nonu possessed until later in his career and it’s what really made him stand out amongst the competition, despite his obvious other strengths.

In Ennor’s case, the young utility back possesses something that none of the other recent midfield options really have – blistering pace.

Much in the same vein that there are tries that only Ngani Laumape is capable of scoring due to his outrageous physicality, Ennor’s ability to burst onto the ball and slip outside any would-be tacklers makes him a very potent weapon on offence.

The Crusaders’ second try against the Hurricanes last weekend was a perfect illustration of this while you only have to look back to the game between the Crusaders and the Chiefs in Fiji last year to see how lethal Ennor’s speed can be.

In the Crusaders’ third try of that match, Ennor was able to crab sideways and slide outside of Anton Lienert-Brown’s reach – who’s by no means a slouch on defence. Having broken the line, Ennor released Sevu Reece as the gas man on the outside to score the try – but you get the feeling that Ennor himself could have easily outpaced the Chiefs’ chasers.

Crotty’s presence at the Crusaders last year forced Ennor onto the wing but the former Aucklander has been a mainstay in the midfield for the Cantabrians this season and has forged a reliable partnership with Jack Goodhue.

With Laumape and Ennor on the scene, there was no real reason to even consider that new head coach Ian Foster might look elsewhere to plug the gaps left due to Williams and Crotty’s departures – but Rieko Ioane may be forcing a change of heart.

Ioane’s struggles in the last year or so have been well documented.

The 23-year-old debuted for the All Blacks in 2016 but really put his name in the spotlight a year later when the Lions toured NZ. The young wing was perhaps the most dangerous player on either side, despite having fewer than a handful of caps to his name.

By the end of 2018, Ioane had touched down for 22 tries in 24 international matches – but his form had been relatively patchy in the latter part of the year. Two years after his test debut, teams had realised how much of a threat the speedster was and started marking up accordingly, which gave Ioane considerably less room to move and make an impact.

Come the World Cup, Ioane had been usurped by George Bridge on the All Blacks’ right wing.

Still just in his early 20’s, there was no reason to expect that Ioane couldn’t force his way back into Foster’s good books with a solid Super Rugby season. ‘Solid’ doesn’t go halfway to capturing Ioane’s form in 2020 – but it’s not on the wing where he’s been making his mark.

Since round five of the Super Rugby competition, Ioane has been a mainstay in the Blues midfield. While wearing the 13 jersey, Ioane has been the Blues’ second-biggest metre-eater on attack – second just to Mark Telea. His clean breaks and defenders beaten stats are also near the top of the Blues’ charts and the men outside have all still flourished since Ioane’s move in from the wing.

Like Ngani Laumape, Ioane possesses the raw physicality that some of NZ’s other midfield options are somewhat lacking – and his speed is up there with Braydon Ennor’s.

After three rounds of impressive performances in Super Rugby Aotearoa, we’re now reaching a point where Ioane is a very serious option in the centres for New Zealand.

This isn’t Rieko Ioane’s first foray into the Blues midfield – he’s been used there on occasions in the last two seasons. This year, however, he’s looking less like a wing playing at centre and more like an out-and-out midfielder.

Whatever Foster decides, the All Blacks will benefit hugely from some selection consistency. During Hansen’s last four years in charge, chopping and changing was all too common in the centres. That was partially due to the regularity with which Ryan Crotty and Sonny Bill Williams were invalided due to injury – something which thankfully hasn’t been the case for the current crop of options.

National sides’ defences have reached almost impregnable levels in the last four years and while greater focus on offside lines from the officials may give attackers greater room to move, there will still be some need for X-factor in the midfield. Ioane – perhaps alongside Anton Lienert-Brown – offers exactly that.

There are still many weeks to play in Super Rugby Aotearoa but Ioane is making all the right moves at the moment. The real challenge will come in two weeks when the Blues combo of Ioane and TJ Faiane goes head to head with Goodhue and Ennor – a match will also likely double as the competition’s favourite-decider heading into the second round of fixtures.

While New Zealand was already flush with players ready to step into the All Blacks midfield following the departures of Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty, Rieko Ioane has now given new coach Ian Foster some more food for thought. Could he be the best option to help the All Blacks take their attack to the next level?

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