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New Zealand's halfback conundrum

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Third best in the country but still playing second fiddle at the Chiefs: New Zealand's halfback conundrum

OPINION: When Steve Hansen and his fellow All Blacks selectors announced their foundation day training squad, they lay down a marker for which positions they see as being all but sewn up.

It’s clear that there are still loose forward spots up for grabs and that the outside backs are also not quite decided.

In contrast, Beauden Barrett, Richie Mo’unga and Damian McKenzie are virtually guaranteed to travel as the first five-eighths.

One of the positions that may cause a few eyebrow raises, however, is the halfbacks.

There’s no question that Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara are New Zealand’s top two scrumhalves – though the ordering may differ based on who you ask. It should be almost unanimous, however, that there’s daylight between the second and third best halves in the country.

Based on the foundation squad, it seems that there’s no question in Hansen’s mind that said third best halfback is the young Chief Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi.

Tahuriorangi has been a part of the All Blacks set up since the June tests last year, fighting out the likes of Chiefs teammate Brad Weber and Crusaders duo Bryn Hall and Mitchell Drummond.

Smith and Perenara have been All Blacks representatives for a number of years now and, alongside the recently departed Tawera Kerr-Barlow, formed a trio of high-quality halfbacks with a wide range of skills.

In the period dominated by those three, few players have had the chance to bust into the squad, only briefly floating in and out of the All Blacks as a result of injury to one of the incumbents.

Current Blues halfback, Augustine Pulu, travelled with the All Blacks to the Northern Hemisphere at the end of 2014 as the third-choice halfback after Kerr-Barlow was ruled out of the tour due to an injury suffered in the final match of that year’s Rugby Championship. Pulu earned two caps, against the USA and Scotland, but has slowly fallen down the pecking order in recent times.

Weber earned a sole cap for New Zealand in a World Cup warm-up match against Samoa in 2015, after Highlanders and Hurricanes players were ruled out due to battling it out in the Super Rugby final only days before the game.

Kerr-Barlow signed to join with French team La Rochelle at the start of the 2017 year but, even though there was no chance of Kerr-Barlow making it to this year’s World Cup, the All Blacks selectors continue to keep him in the squad – giving some indication to how highly regarded the Waikato halfback was.

It was this persistence with Kerr-Barlow, however, that now sees us nearing the dawn of the 2019 showcase tournament in Japan without an experienced third choice halfback.

On the 2017 end of year tour, Drummond was seemingly the fourth ranked halfback in New Zealand, getting 10 minutes against a French XV in a non-capped game.

One year later, Drummond and Crusaders teammate Hall travelled to Japan as part of the giant 51-man All Blacks squad, alongside the trio of Smith, Perenara and Tahuriorangi. Tahuriorangi was given the starting jersey against Japan and ceded to Drummond in the 59th minute – earning the Cantabrian his first test cap.

Weber was also busy on the international circuit, battling it out with the likes of the USA, Brazil and Chile for the Maori All Blacks. When the All Blacks needed an extra man in Japan, however, it was Hall, also on the Maori tour, who took the spot – indicating that slightly more senior Weber’s chances of further representing his country were coming to a close.

All said and done, we’re left with seven halfbacks currently representing New Zealand Super Rugby franchises who have spent time in an All Blacks squad: Smith, Perenara, Tahuriorangi, Drummond, Hall, Weber and Pulu.

Smith and Perenara have 82 and 55 caps respectively, putting them up with the most experienced halfbacks operating on the international scene. The five other halfbacks in the All Blacks repertoire have just seven caps between them.

The problem isn’t that none of the reserves have the potential to be great international players, it’s simply that they haven’t had many opportunities to push their case at the higher level.

Tahuriorangi, in particular, looks to have an exceptionally high ceiling. When questioned on why the young Taranaki halfback was selected over someone such as Hall, Hansen noted that it was Tahuriorangi’s bullet like passes that got him the job.

“A guy like Te Toiroa is, we think, got the ability to be a stunning halfback,” Hansen said.

“He’s the closest passer of the ball to Nugget (Smith) that we’ve got in the country, his speed of pass is outstanding and he’s growing quite nicely.”

Of course, while that may all well be true and Tahuriorangi could well develop into the next big thing, it doesn’t look like the 24-year old is necessarily at the level required to handle top international opposition – or, at least, that seems to be the way Chiefs coach Colin Cooper is thinking.

Having both the more experienced Weber and the young up-and-comer Tahuriorangi in a Super Rugby squad is great for the latter’s development – and pushes the former to keep up their performances – but it also looks like it might be holding Tahuriorangi back.

In the Chiefs’ seven games to date this year, Tahuriorangi has played just over 160 minutes of football – barely the equivalent of two full games. In contrast, Weber has started all seven of the matches, clocking up over 450 minutes.

Tahuriorangi’s quick and accurate passes may be great at creating opportunities late in the game when defences are tiring, but he’s getting very little experience to show for his prodigious talents.

With Smith and Perenara on New Zealand’s books until 2021 and Weber signed with the Chiefs until the end of 2020, Tahuriorangi may quickly find that he’s struggling for any opportunities to push the two incumbents off their perch.

His continued selection with the All Blacks means he gets limited time at provincial level – playing only one match for Taranaki in 2018 – and he’s simply not getting the opportunities at Super Rugby or test level because there are players ahead of him.

This will, of course, be frustrating for Tahuriorangi to no end. Even the most patient player would be disappointed at only being on the field for a little over 700 minutes in a calendar year – a figure that effectively amounts to only professional 9 matches.

Tahuriorangi’s lack of game time should also be a concern for the All Blacks selectors. Even If he is seen as only a player for the future, the lack of opportunities and experience that Tahuriorangi is getting at Super Rugby level will be hampering that development.

Tahuriorangi may well find that when his contract with the Chiefs comes to an end once this season is up, he would be better versed signing a short-term deal with another Super Rugby side lacking a settled starter – which would likely lead him north to the Blues.

More pressingly, however, is the fact that it’s unlikely Hansen and the other All Blacks coaches see Tahuriorangi as purely a project player.

Only three halfbacks were selected in the foundation squad to prepare for the upcoming year’s international games, which means that Tahuriorangi is firmly entrenched as the third cab of the ranks.

But what happens if, on the eve of a World Cup semi-final, Aaron Smith or TJ Perenara is cut down by an injury, preventing them from taking the field for the next match?

Naturally, the remaining halfback of Smith or Perenara would start the winner-takes-all game, but would anyone – fans, coaches or players alike – be comfortable with Tahuriorangi joining the fray late in the game to close out a knock out match?

Instead, would one of Drummond, Hall or Weber be whisked over to Japan to join the team? All three players are vastly experienced at Super Rugby Level, at the very least, but all three players have also been completely omitted from the All Blacks plans this year – at least as far as the public can tell.

Perhaps the problem is being overstated. Perhaps the All Blacks coaches would be perfectly content with Tahuriorangi and his maybe dozen caps taking the field against Ireland in a Rugby World quarter-final – it just seems hard to imagine, given the sheer drop off in experience from Smith or Perenara to New Zealand’s third best.

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Third best in the country but still playing second fiddle at the Chiefs: New Zealand's halfback conundrum