If you're an All Black winger, early ball has been hard to come by
Jeff Wilson was a big fan of the post-try point, back in the day.
A noted basketball enthusiast, Wilson was always quick to point at the player he thought had laid on the “assist’’ for his latest five-pointer.
The point wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but, if it was good enough for Magic Johnson and company, then it was good enough for Wilson.
Fast forward a few seasons and there aren’t too many modern day All Blacks wings getting their index finger out. And, if they are, it’s unlikely to be aimed in Rieko Ioane’s direction.
The All Blacks’ backline is finally taking some welcome shape.
Jordie Barrett was never a test wing, just as Beauden Barrett was probably only a stop-gap fullback.
But with Jordie in at 15 and Beauden doing decent things (in Richie Mo’unga’s absence) at 10 and David Havili and Quinn Tupaea proving able second five-eighths, there’s a bit to enthuse about these days.
New Zealand’s wings have been a bit quiet, though, and it’s not hard to see why.
It’s not so long ago that Rieko Ioane looked like going down the Julian Savea route. A gifted athlete, who took to test rugby with aplomb, Ioane suddenly lost form, got sluggish and battled to get into the All Blacks’ best XV.
To his credit, he’s been electric of late and most fans would agree there are few carriers of the football to match Ioane at the moment.
But there’s the rub. Such is Ioane’s ability with ball in hand, that passing appears to be the furthest thing from his mind.
Now that would be fine if he were still playing on the wing but, given he’s now a centre, that’s not a great result for the men outside him.
If you’re Will Jordan or Sevu Reece or George Bridge it appears as if you’re not going to get any good, early ball. In fact, if you want the pill, then you’re going to have to gather it from someone’s kick or maybe collect an offload because Ioane ain’t about to fire the footy your way.
Many of us wondered if defence might prove Ioane’s biggest challenge in midfield. We think back to the night the Blues played him at second five-eighth in Wellington and Hurricanes’ Ngani Laumape rumbled over for four tries.
Again, to Ioane’s credit, he’s proved pretty sound at centre. But if he is going to be persisted with in that position, then he will need to develop an ability to get his wings into the game.
Ioane has a useful short-passing game from set play. He can take the ball to the line and pop to a bloke running off his shoulder.
But, given time and space, Ioane will look only for himself and then maybe offload speculatively as a last resort.
Watching the All Blacks play Argentina over the past couple of weeks, it’s been fair to say Bridge and Reece and Jordan have been quiet. But then you would be too, if catching or chasing kicks was the extent of your involvement.
The injured Anton Lienert-Brown will be back in the near future and, presumably in the 13 jumper, given what a mainstay Havili has quickly made himself at second-five. The question then is whether Ioane goes back to the wing or watches from the bench.
Overall, though, there’s been a bit to like about how this backline has come together.
Mo’unga’s unavailability has helped. It’s defined Beauden Barrett’s role and reminded us all of how well he can run the cutter from 10.
The biggest beneficiary from Mo’unga’s absence, though, has been Jordie Barrett.
It was a mark of Beauden Barrett’s skill and athletic ability that he could previously make a go of fullback, even if it effectively stymied the progress of his brother.
No matter how well Jordie Barrett played at 15 for the Hurricanes, it didn’t appear he was in much danger of becoming the All Blacks’ first-choice fullback. But, having been afforded that opportunity, Jordie Barrett is now blossoming on the test stage.
As this season began, some of us feared that the All Blacks’ coaches didn’t know what their best line-up was. Sure, they could clearly identify who the best players were, but it was less apparent that the coaches knew where to put them.
But with both the backline Barretts – plus Havili – among those players to step up, a quality, cohesive backline is emerging. The one slight concern remains Ioane.
His ball-carrying ability is unquestioned and, frankly, there are few finer sights in the game than Ioane scything through in centrefield. At least for those of us watching from our couches.
If you’re an All Blacks wing, though, then maybe you’re wistfully thinking about how good it might be to get some ball too.
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