With Ma’a Nonu back in Super Rugby, along with regular All Blacks Anton Lienert-Brown, Jack Goodhue and Ryan Crotty, there is plenty of competition for mid-field spots for this year’s World Cup. However, the most intriguing battle is shaping to be between Sonny Bill Williams and Ngani Laumape for the number 12 jersey.
The pressure is mounting on incumbent midfielder Williams to retain his starting All Blacks jersey in what could be his final year in New Zealand Rugby, with 25-year-old Hurricanes midfielder Laumape continuing to push his case with destructive performances in Super Rugby.
It is hard not to be seduced by the explosive power-packed Laumape, who put up a monster 162-metres in a three-try performance against the Brumbies over the weekend.
He has consistently shown the ability to bulldoze over just about anyone since his breakout season in 2017, scoring 16-tries in a record-setting season. His 156 defenders beaten since debuting in Super Rugby is in the top five in the competition over that time.
He has added strings to his bow last year at the Hurricanes, showing off a cross-field kick regularly, taking on first receiver duties, playing the midfielder role out the back of pods, while his offloading ability has always been there.
Laumape’s tailored role at the Hurricanes affords him numerous opportunities on the edge, usually after an opposition exit kick, playing to his strengths as a former NRL-winger. It is misleading to just take his numbers at face value, as a lot of his production comes from storming down the sideline as a winger.
This isn’t to take away from his impact – it has been a masterstroke strategic ploy by the Hurricanes, easing Laumape’s transition from rugby league while at the same time innovating the modern-day midfielder.
They have designed a role to fit Laumape’s skills perfectly, maximising his power running in vulnerable areas on the edge. It is something the All Blacks have picked up too, doing the same thing when he is in the starting line-up.
He has also shown his ability as a genuine 12, running tight lines in the channels outside 10, with his strong carrying achieving gain line (42.2% success rate last year for the Hurricanes) and an ability to find holes. His support play backing up is an underrated strength, which he always seems to profit from.
The international level is a different beast, however, and Laumape’s drop in effectiveness in 2018 was evident. His gain line success dropped from 42.2% at Super Rugby level to 28.8% for the All Blacks, despite playing against the weaker test opposition on the schedule.
In his only 80-minute game at 12 against Tier 1 opposition last year, Kurtley Beale managed him well in the first half before Laumape showed signs of breaking the door down.
He finished with 16 carries for 81-metres with one line break, a good, but not spectacular output from Laumape in a dominant All Blacks win at Eden Park. Kurtley Beale is also not the quality of midfield defender that Laumape would face against top Northern Hemisphere teams at the World Cup, with stronger defenders expected.
Laumape’s own defence has improved since his first All Blacks game but there are still work-ons to be made in areas that become second-nature with experience. He finished the Wallabies test with nine tackles from nine attempts but it’s off-the-ball situations like this where he can improve.
Laumape’s man is Reece Hodge (13) but once Foley breaks the tackle he switches off momentarily, allowing the Wallabies to maximise this opportunity.
He turns blind to chase with his back turned, oblivious to what his assignment is doing. His man Reece Hodge is able to run an unobstructed support line on the inside.
He could legally use his position to prevent Hodge from catching up with Foley, but he doesn’t think to shield him away in order to disrupt his line and he falls behind.
Hodge is there to receive the inside pass from Foley and go over untouched for a try with Laumape a good three metres behind.
Not to absolve Aaron Smith from missing the original tackle, but this try could have been prevented on this phase, or at least made more difficult, by Laumape using his leverage to stop Hodge getting there in support and taking away Foley’s only option.
Once a break is made there is still work that can be done in defence to shut the play down, but it requires quicker reaction, better use of multi-directional speed and situational awareness.
Shielding or disrupting support runners is something that experienced outside backs do all the time, something that Adam Ashley-Cooper did against the Hurricanes to limit Laumape’s ability to offload to Vince Aso in the opening game against the Waratahs. The Hurricanes pair had zero line breaks and a combined 36 running metres on the night.
Playing water-tight coverage off-the-ball is extra work that elite defenders do, while situational reads is another area where misses can be costly.
Against the Blues at home last year, Laumape is caught facing an overlap on the edge. He decides to rush up and jam while his inside defender Sam Lousi (5), looks to slide to take Stephen Perofeta (10), the identified ball-carrier.
Laumape gets interested in Perofeta even though Lousi is there, and he ends up caught in ‘no man’s land’ between Perofeta and Rieko Ioane (12).
Ioane breezes right past, without a finger being laid on him to score in the corner, while Laumape doesn’t attempt a tackle on either player.
Despite being outnumbered, the decision to rush instead of jockey out, not trust the inside defence, and inability to get any contact on Ioane contributed to an all-around bad defensive play that cannot be afforded at the international level.
Laumape is making fewer mistakes as he improves and is getting better at completing tackles at the highest level, moving from around a 71% completion rate to 88% last year with the All Blacks. However, it will be the little one-percenters that make all the difference at the World Cup.
How he plays situational defence, when he does or doesn’t initiate contact, how often he stays alive to continue to track the ball, and how he plays runners off the ball will all be taken into account when assessing his defensive performance.
Sonny Bill Williams, when healthy, has proven to be Steve Hansen’s preference at second-five eighth. Hansen has a lot of stock in Sonny’s ability to do the job, and the professionalism he brings is a positive influence to the next generation of young All Blacks in the squad.
2018 was a disrupted year for Williams, who never got into a grove as he managed injuries. He was trusted to handle test duties without much Super Rugby under his belt and played in only five tests. His tackle success dipped from an elite 88% the year prior to 75%, but he still offered a reliable defensive presence.
Williams’ attacking game at 33-years-old isn’t going to have the eye-popping, highlight-reel runs that Laumape pulls off, but there are still few defenders in the game that have the ability to manage him one-on-one for the full 80-minutes. He always attracts multiple defenders at some point, possessing a black hole-like gravitational pull that the defence finds irresistible.
The most talked about trend in the 2019 Six Nations has been England’s use of attacking kicks to take apart the opposition. This in part, has been a solution to the near-impenetrable front-line defence systems employed by the world’s best teams.
Williams’ most valuable asset – the offloading ability, is something there is no answer to. It is a weapon that can create a line break even when the defence does nothing wrong. It can be indefensible, especially when deployed by someone regarded as the world’s best and who has turned it into something of an art form. It is something that Laumape offers as well, but you cannot go past the best in the business.
England only had to deal with Williams for thirty minutes in November, a period in which they had nearly all the running, while Ireland did not see him at all. There will be an element of surprise with a fit Williams at the World Cup and the space-creating ability he brings.
Can Manu Tuilagi, Bundee Aki or Hadleigh Parkes handle Williams all alone without outside help? Springboks centre Damian de Allende gave the most convincing account in Pretoria last year and might be the only one that can do so in Japan, that is if he can do it again.
If any opposition does find a way to limit Williams in attack, it’s still his defensive ability that is bedrock to the All Blacks backline.
The 2017 version of Williams offered a defensive enforcer that brought stability in addition to punishing dominant tackles. In the one-point win against South Africa at Newlands where the All Blacks had just 36% possession, Williams ate up Bok runner after Bok runner for an astounding game-high 23 tackles, missing two for a 92% success rate. He consistently shows he can match the physicality of any loose forward, stopping their momentum in one-on-one tackles and fills the midfield with sheer size.
On the end of year tour against France, Scotland, and Wales, he completed 91.4% of his tackles while finding that spark in attack, particularly against Scotland where his involvement in two tries was instrumental in winning at Murrayfield. Also telling, the 2017 Williams carried the ball with a 42.9% gain line success rate with the All Blacks.
The question is whether Williams durability issues will subside this year to allow him to get enough game time to peak at the right time. His early management at the Blues suggests a cautious approach will be taken, which is what is required to make that happen in October.
Having been a part of two World Cup-winning campaigns, Williams brings experience and the mindset of a champion required for tournament success. The grandest stage has never been too much for the greatest dual-code athlete, whether it be NRL Grand Finals, Super Rugby finals, or World Cups, he has done it all.
Despite an injury-list that would end most careers, Williams keeps coming back. It is a testament to the mental strength and resilience of the man that he is on the field at this stage of his career. He didn’t reach his best form in 2018, but he still showed it is within reach.
The end of year tour showed that knockout games against the likes of England, Ireland and Wales are going to be defensive battles of attrition decided by small margins. Outside of Laumape’s attacking showing the third test of the 2017 Lions tour, we don’t have empirical evidence his explosive firepower will decimate top tier Northern Hemisphere opposition.
In those knockout games, if Williams is healthy he should start while Laumape could be used off the bench against selected opposition to bring a 30-minute cameo, if both of them make the squad.
It is going to be a tough selection decision nonetheless, but defence will win this year’s World Cup so the midfielders that put together smart, reliable performances without the ball-in-hand will be the ones that get a plane ticket to Japan.
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