Patrick McKendry / NZ Herald
One of the more surprising aspects of the Hurricanes’ relatively close quarter-final victory over the Bulls was how well the visitors contained second-five Ngani Laumape, a player with 11 tries this season but who hardly fired an attacking shot last weekend.
He and the Hurricanes will have plenty to ponder over the next few days ahead of their semifinal against the Crusaders in Christchurch on Saturday because if the same thing happens, they’ll have next to no chance of an upset victory against a side who haven’t lost a home playoff match in 22 attempts.
Laumape is the Hurricanes’ go-to guy in terms of providing them momentum against rush defences. The Crusaders will certainly provide that as they seek to again disrupt Beauden Barrett and so there will be an expectation that Laumape will buy the visitors time and space with his carrying against two fellow All Black midfielders in Ryan Crotty and Jack Goodhue.
Strangely, he ran only six times with the ball against the Bulls in his team’s 35-28 win, and made only three tackles (missing one). He passed the ball only four times. For such an important player to handle the ball so infrequently is odd.
There is even more at stake for him in Christchurch. If the 26-year-old can rediscover his attacking and defensive spark there, he will impress the All Blacks selectors hugely and do no harm to his World Cup hopes.
At the moment, he is probably behind Crotty, Goodhue, Anton Lienert-Brown and Sonny Bill Williams in the pecking order, with Crusader Braydon Ennor also in the mix, and so it’s entirely possible that despite being close to unstoppable at times for the Hurricanes this season, he could miss out on a trip to Japan.
The selectors feel that good performances during the pressure and intensity of a playoffs match is a greater indication of a player’s readiness to go to the next level.
There has never been that doubt with Crotty, Goodhue or Williams, and the selectors admire Ennor, likely to again be named on the bench on Saturday, for his pace, decision-making and ability to play in the midfield or as an outside back.
Lienert-Brown’s greatest strength as far as the All Blacks are concerned is his ability to add impact off the bench.
Last year, Laumape was told by Steve Hansen and company to work on his communication with first-five Barrett.
“We have got a plan for Ngani,” Hansen said after Laumape wasn’t included in the Rugby Championship squad.
“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.
“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.”
Laumape, a schoolboy rugby player who spent time with the Warriors before returning to the code via Manawatu and the Hurricanes, has probably made improvements here but if ever there was a time for him to get more involved, it is now, because as their head coach John Plumtree said after their recent win, they need to get everything right against the defending champions.
“It’s a formidable pack and we are mindful of that,” assistant coach Carlos Spencer told Radio Sport’s D’Arcy Waldegrave of the Crusaders. “But look at their backline, some of the quality players they’ve got out there as well means they’re a very good side all over the pitch.
“We’ve definitely got talent, no doubt about that.
“It’s about getting them ball, and front-foot ball. If we’re struggling up front, it’s hard for our boys out the back to get quality ball and show what they can do.”
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