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'He's been amazing': Ex-All Blacks rank New Zealand's top five halfbacks

By Luke Petherick
Folau Fakatava scored a crucial try for the Highlanders in their win over the Reds. (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

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With only one round left to go before Super Rugby Pacific finals, many All Blacks halfback contenders are putting their hand up for selection.

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However, one who has failed to do so thus far this season is Hurricanes halfback TJ Perenara.

A member of the All Blacks for the last eight years, Perenara is one of the most experienced halfbacks in New Zealand with 78 tests to his name.

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Mils Muliaina, John Kirwan and Ben O’Keeffe discuss all things rugby
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Mils Muliaina, John Kirwan and Ben O’Keeffe discuss all things rugby

That seemingly isn’t enough to earn him selection this year, though, according to former All Blacks pair Sir John Kirwan and Mils Muliaina.

Speaking on The Breakdown, Muliaina and Kirwan, as well as international referee Ben O’Keeffe and host Kirstie Stanway,  shared their views on how they would rank the current pool of Kiwi halfbacks.

All four panel members ranked Highlanders captain and All Blacks centurion Aaron Smith as the incumbent No 9, but none had Perenara in their top three halfbacks.

In fact, three of the four panellists – Kirwan, Muliaina and Stanway – ranked Perenara as their fifth-choice halfback as others such as Finlay Christie, Brad Weber and Folau Fakatava featured in their top three halfback picks.

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Those selections reflect badly on Perenara’s hopes of All Blacks selection ahead of July’s test series against Ireland, with All Blacks head coach Ian Foster expected to name just three halfbacks in his squad.

Picking Smith, Weber and Fakatava as his three halfbacks, Kirwan explained that Fakatava was in direct competition with Perenara for one of is three selections on the basis that they offer contrasting playing styles to the other candidates.

In saying that, Kirwan opted for Fakatava as he believes the Highlanders youngster needs as much test exposure as possible if he is to come into contention for next year’s World Cup.

“If you think that Fakatava is going to make the World Cup, you’re going to have to play him this year,” Kirwan told The Breakdown.

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“I’m not writing TJ off because he is such a competitor and such a good player, but his style for me is [the same as] Fakatava.”

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Muliaina echoed Kirwan’s sentiments, going as far to suggest that Fakatava could warrant a starting role for the All Blacks.

“When you look at a halfback, you want impact. What he’s done, every time he’s come on for the Highlanders, he’s brought that impact, he’s brought something different,” Muliana told The Breakdown.

“It might be just his darting game that he does. He puts someone into space, he gets over the ball as well, and wins turnovers. He just lifts to another level.

“I think what’s actually happened down there also, his passing game has really improved, given that he is with Aaron Smith, hence the reason I think to have someone come off the bench and really bring that impact and really challenge too.

“I think he can get to a stage where he starts. That’s how good he’s been for me. I think something different definitely, that we need.

“If you want to tick a box, does TJ bring what Fakatava does? I think that Fakatava probably excels in terms of what he does, his impact and x-factor.

“I think given the quality that we have got particularly within our forwards, the ball-playing ability that we want to get to, we need to move the ball. We need to have a bit of speed.”

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Having recently officiated matches involving Fakatava, O’Keeffe has seen his game up close and described him as a “fantastic” player.

“I think Fakatava for example has x-factor. He comes on and he closed out the game for the Highlanders really well. He has gotten rid of the errors that were potentially in his game maybe a few years ago,” O’Keeffe said.

“Normally x-factor players start games, so bringing on a player like that is pretty fantastic. You bring on players for the style of play you want to play. I think the All Blacks do want to play with high-tempo right the way through the 80 minutes.

“We have a depth of talent for halfbacks in New Zealand. We have someone like Brad Weber, I think he’s an excellent sniping halfback. He’s been amazing for the All Blacks over the last few years as well.

“It just shows that we still have the best players in the world in New Zealand, I think. We are going five deep, where any one of those five players could start for the All Blacks.”

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