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The biggest benefit of bringing in Joe Schmidt as an All Blacks selector

By Tom Vinicombe
Joe Schmidt and Folau Fakatava. (Photos by Getty Images)

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Joe Schmidt will add some fresh thinking to the All Blacks selection process next season and there’s more than a few problem positions where some new ideas could pay dividends for the future.

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Chief among them is sorting out the situation at halfback, where even after spending half a season without Aaron Smith to call upon, Ian Foster and co don’t appear to be any closer to nailing down who should play second-fiddle to Smith in the big tests.

Smith has effectively held down the number one scrum-half position in the All Blacks since he debuted in 2012. There was a small blip in 2016 when it looked like TJ Perenara might surge ahead of the incumbent on the end-of-year tour but by the same time the next season, it was clear that Smith was back on top.

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The panel of Ross Karl, Bryn Hall and James Parsons run their eyes over all the developments from the past week of rugby.
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The panel of Ross Karl, Bryn Hall and James Parsons run their eyes over all the developments from the past week of rugby.

Since then, Smith has advanced his game further and despite Antoine Dupont getting the better of his more senior opponent during this year’s clash between France and the All Blacks, a match-fit Smith is still arguably the top halfback in the world at present.

Perenara, on the other hand, has continued to be a physically combative player who is not dissimilar to a loose forward in his abilities in the collision areas, but still lags behind other top No 9s around the world in the core facet of passing the ball.

With Smith remaining in New Zealand when the All Blacks travelled to Australia for the Rugby Championship and only re-joining the team in the dying stages of the season, the likes of Perenara, Brad Weber and 2021 debutant Finlay Christie all had opportunities to put their hands up and say ‘Pick me’.

Despite having nine matches to cement a second-choice scrum-half, however, the selectors don’t appear to be any clearer on who is the man for the job.

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Perenara was given the greatest number of opportunities, earning five starts, while Weber had three of his own and Christie wore the No 9 jersey against the USA.

While Perenara and Christie aren’t slow at getting the ball out of the breakdown, they also aren’t lightning-quick and against fast-advancing defences, the All Blacks struggled hugely.

When Weber went off injured after 10 minutes against Italy, the All Blacks were already struggling against the rushing Italian tacklers, and Christie’s inaccuracy did not help the matter, with NZ players rarely able to run onto the ball at pace.

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The All Blacks did not play well against the Azzurri and their basic skills let them down on a huge number of occasions, but the biggest problem for the side in that match was they were never able to get their attack humming due to the initial delivery of the ball from their halfback.

It’s a similar issue they ran into with Perenara at No 9.

With Weber at the helm, the pace of the delivery made up for any passing inaccuracies and the All Blacks attack looked considerably more threatening.

Still, Weber was only able to clock up the aforementioned three starts, and the head knock suffered against Italy really limited him to just two games of worthwhile minutes.

Next year, the selectors are hoping that Tongan-born Highlander Folau Fakatava will be available for the All Blacks – although nothing is set in stone yet.

Unlike 2021, it’s like the All Blacks will also have to select a more standard-sized squad and Foster won’t have the luxury of running with four halfbacks.

While Schmidt won’t take up the mantle as a selector until August, there’s a good chance that by the time he comes on board, Foster and John Plumtree won’t have moved forward with their process at halfback.

As such, one of the former Ireland coach’s first tasks will be helping to make a cut in the No 9 jersey.

If Fakatava is seen as the successor to 31-year-old Smith, then next year is likely to be the best time to blood the youngster, with the World Cup arriving a year later. In that case, does that mean one of Perenara or Weber lose their spot in the squad? And where does that leave Christie?

It will be a tough call, but one that Schmidt is perfectly placed to help with given that he has no ties to any players in the current squad. Loyalty won’t come into the equation at all – and while he’s obviously a gun analyst and a great rugby mind, it’s really his lack of ties that will make him such a great selector.

And as Foster said after the appointment was announced, selection is likely the biggest factor in success.

“I’m of the great belief that that sort of performance and coaching is probably 80 per cent selection, so it’s a vital component, and so it’s something that you take pretty seriously,” he said.

“We love the conversations that go around and the debates, and I’m sure they’ll continue. They’ll probably sound a little bit different, and they’ll come from a different mouth, but I’m sure that the desire to better the team is still going to be paramount and centre of the conversation, so that’s all that really matters.”

While Schmidt isn’t going to remove players’ personalities from the selection table, he hasn’t built long-term relationships with players and his first responsibility will be to the All Blacks as a whole.

The selectors are going to have to make some tough decisions next year when they cut back their squad, and a fresh face is perhaps the best way to help that process along.

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