If Saturday’s North v South clash weren’t an All Blacks trial masquerading as the great interisland battles of the past, then the world’s best halfback would likely be starting in the No. 9 jersey for the North Island team.
The reality is that the Ian Foster and his assistants are using this weekend’s match as the final trial before selecting their squad on Sunday for what will likely be a supersized Bledisloe Cup series – which could be why TJ Perenara has received the nod ahead of Aaron Smith.
Smith, following a superlative Super Rugby Aotearoa season with the Highlanders, has sent a reminder out across the globe that the fast-slinging scrumhalf adds another level to any team that’s lucky enough to have him in the driver’s seat. There’s a possibility that North coaches John Plumtree and Scott McLeod believe that TJ Perenara can get under the skin of their opposition and wear them down before Smith is unleashed in the final quarter of the game.
In all likelihood, however, the national selectors want to see the All Blacks backup halves go head to head – which is why Perenara and Weber have been selected to square off over the weekend.
Last year, the three most experienced Super Rugby halfback in the country, Smith, Perenara and Weber, all travelled to the World Cup. There’s a very slim chance that all three will be selected for the 2023 competition in France, however, and the All Blacks coaches will be contemplating what the best process is to bring in new talent.
Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi and Mitch Drummond are the only other halfbacks in the country that have earned international caps but neither have been selected for the North v South encounter – not even on the bench.
With Perenara and Smith in the North, 25-year-old Tahuriorangi was always going to struggle to earn a spot in the matchday 23. His selection in the squad in the first place came as a surprise to many, simply given his lack of minutes at Super Rugby level over the past two seasons.
Drummond, on the other hand, was regularly used as an impact player for the Crusaders and could have been pushing Weber for the starting South spot. Finlay Christie’s selection, however, means that neither of the champion Crusaders’ halfbacks have made the North v South matchday teams.
While last year’s World Cup trio were always expected to take up three of the four interisland spots, Christie would have been a rank outsider for the fourth option at the start of the season and his selection is a clear reward for the solid form the former Blues halfback has displayed during the latter half of the Super season.
At 25 years old, Christie could slowly be emerging as the likeliest contender to slip into the All Blacks squad ahead of one of Weber or Perenara. He’s helped hugely by not being perched behind a more experienced option at the Blues and has been playing alongside one of the most experienced 10s in the country.
Prior to the season, you would have thought that the All Blacks coaches would be using 2020 as a rebuilding year to start integrating young talent to slowly replace the men that might not be up to scratch in four year’s time. While it would be unfair to categorically rule out any of the current crop of players from making the next competition, taking three halfbacks aged 31 and over to the World Cup does seem unlikely.
The disrupted year means that Foster has even less time to bring new players up to speed and prepare them for the likes of England and South Africa but, at least at this stage, it looks like any changes in the halves may be another year away.
Unless, of course, the selectors are considering bring Christie or Tahuriorangi in ahead of Perenara or Weber. Perhaps playing the latter two against each other in Saturday’s match is a trial to determine who of Smith’s back-ups should be preserved in the squad, and who should be let go.
It would be cut-throat decision to make, but that’s the nature of professional rugby.
What the North v South selections have taught us is that the pecking order is still very much up for debate. Bryn Hall and Mitch Drummond were major cogs in the Crusaders machine and have both missed out on selection while Aaron Smith, the best halfback in the world, is riding the pine. Sunday’s All Blacks selection should answer a few questions around what the national coaches are thinking for the future.
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