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The race for All Blacks centre is far from run

By Ned Lester
Rieko Ioane runs the ball against Namibia. (Photo by PA Images)

The first All Blacks squad of the year is just three weeks away from being named and some names have surpassed potential bolter status to be considered contenders for starting jerseys.

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That’s the case for form Hurricanes centre Billy Proctor, who has the added benefit of a pre-existing relationship with incumbent All Blacks second five-eighth Jordie Barrett.

The two have been key components in the Hurricanes’ best season since 2015, and their success has begged the question of just how safe Rieko Ioane’s jersey is.

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The lads have plenty of big club games to react to this week after finals in Europe and Japan as well as some huge results in Super Rugby Pacific. We start by dissecting the games in Christchurch and Hamilton before casting an eye over the Champions Cup final.

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How would Super Rugby teams fare in the Champions Cup? | Aotearoa Rugby Pod

The lads have plenty of big club games to react to this week after finals in Europe and Japan as well as some huge results in Super Rugby Pacific. We start by dissecting the games in Christchurch and Hamilton before casting an eye over the Champions Cup final.

The Barrett-Ioane combination found its rhythm in 2023 en route to the Rugby World Cup final, and the pair were expected to be the face of the All Blacks midfield for years to come.

However, Proctor has long been touted for international honours, and his tenacity and instinct on both sides of the ball playing outside Barrett in the yellow jersey may just be reminding fans of how a midfield combination of yesteryear from the capital benefitted from playing both club and country side by side.

Proctor’s case was debated on this week’s episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.

“Rieko is world-class, proven at the international level,” former All Black James Parsons said. “I think that combination (of Barrett and Proctor) will get a go and when Billy makes his debut, he will have Jordie inside him, just to set him up for success.

“The big thing for Rieko, he’s had a challenging year, probably the first time in his career that he’s suffered a lot of injuries; obviously had a couple of head knocks, got an injury at the moment as well. So, I think his focus will be just getting his body right and hopefully playing a part for the Blues towards the latter end if they get that far.

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“Billy’s different. His ability to run lines and create and obviously get himself in some holes but attract that attention of defenders that will free up space for a (Salesi) Rayasi or a Ruben Love who’s on that sweeping play, will pay dividends at that Test match level because it’s something different.

“But, those Test matches are going to be won by such fine margins, and it’s those little efforts that he can deliver that will set up opportunities for them to win Test matches.”

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In 2023, five midfielders were selected in the All Blacks’ Rugby Championship squad; Barrett, Ioane, Anton Lienert-Brown, Braydon Ennor and Dallas McLeod.

Lienert-Brown’s form has done anything but diminish in 2024, projecting another selection for the 29-year-old.

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“Rieko and Anton have been in that All Blacks environment for long periods of time, so they’ve got runs on the board and Razor will know that and the coaching staff will see the proven players that they are,” Parsons’ co-panellist Bryn Hall added.

“But, at the same, the thing that I love about Billy is his consistency. His bad games are an eight (out of 10) and his good games are a 10. That kind of consistency should be pretty well rewarded and he’s been doing it for a very long time.

“When the Hurricanes don’t win, it’s usually when Billy Proctor isn’t playing. The couple of games he hasn’t played this year, they haven’t won.

“For me, it’s all the little areas with him; It’s a great line of a lineout strike, it’s a defensive read, it’s being able to work hard off the ball and communicate and make good decisions.

“He does that time and time again, not just for the Hurricanes but he’s done it at an international level with the New Zealand Maori, and I know it’s obviously a bit of a step up but he has proven that at the international level against some international teams. I would not be surprised if he’s named (in the All Blacks).

“If they take four midfielders, who’s going to miss out?”

It remains to be seen how poor results have impacted the Crusaders contingent – which also includes David Havili and Levi Aumua – in their case for selection.

Parsons chimed in one more time to add one last endorsement for Proctor.

“Let’s not forget that Billy has absolutely carved up for the All Blacks XV as well, so he’s ready.

“You just can’t ignore, as Bryn said, the last four or five years he has been world-class.”

Watch the exclusive reveal-all episode of Walk the Talk with Ardie Savea as he chats to Jim Hamilton about the RWC 2023 experience, life in Japan, playing for the All Blacks and what the future holds. Watch now for free on RugbyPass TV

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Comments

15 Comments
N
Nickers 18 days ago

Based purely on this SR season Proctor seems more adept at the core roles of a centre, but Reiko brings more individual brilliance with his size and speed. (not that Proctor is small or slow!)

Proctor will no doubt find he gets a lot less time to do the things he does so well at international level, but he is clearly in contention and will definitely be in the squad. I think he has overtaken ALB as the no.1 contender.

I would take Reiko as first choice, as the incumbent who has become a very good international centre, with Proctor to deputise. Reiko has had a worrying number of injuries this season which doesn’t usually bode well, so Proctor might find himself in the deep end regardless.

It’s exciting to have a new coach with a reputation for selecting on form - previously all of these conversations had to be caveated with the fact that Fozzie will not do the obvious thing.

J
Jasyn 18 days ago

Proctor all day, especially since centre pairing combination and familiarity are so key.

Rieko’s game is speed based and nothing else. Doesn't have a fend, distribution is average, has no kicking game at all, and once the predictable outside break attempts fail, he has nothing else.

In the squad as wing cover but that should be about it. He’s done nothing all season.

T
T-Bone 18 days ago

Proctor deserves a chance at some stage this year but test level is a different beast so he shouldn’t just be thrown in there
I’m constantly amazed at the amount of knocking Rieko gets - he’s been a top quality centre for years now, not a wing. He’s also scored some wonderful tries with his searing pace - England and France to name a couple
He had issues with defensive reads in the past but that is also as he has had to deal with so many midfield partners
He also had issues with setting up his team mates but he does that in spades now
His scramble defence is also extraordinary saving the ABs on a number of occasions with his pace
It wasn’t so long ago he had a mammoth game along with Lukanyo Am in SA

Still I look forward to Conrad Proctor (mark 2.0) having a crack this year - very exciting

T
Tristan 18 days ago

Reiko was always a better 11 than 13, so room for both. Jordie, Billy plus Reiko and Telea on the wings is a pretty useful set of backs, both offensive and defensive.

I
Isaac 18 days ago

Alb and tupea have been a worlr class combination

A
Andrew 18 days ago

Desparately need a genuine 13.

E
Euan 18 days ago

If Reiko is a world class centre, how come he never makes any breaks, except down the left wing?

M
MattJH 18 days ago

I slightly favour Proctor at this stage as the 13, especially with Jordie at 12. Hoping to see Rieko hit some form in the play offs though.

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