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Why All Blacks may prefer TJ Perenara or Brad Weber over Folau Fakatava for Ireland series

By Alex McLeod
(Photos: Getty Images/Photosport)

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One of either TJ Perenara or Brad Weber may be preferred over Folau Fakatava as an All Blacks halfback for July’s test series against Ireland.

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That’s the verdict delivered by former All Blacks hooker James Parsons and Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall, both of whom believe the national selectors may opt for experience over youth when picking the New Zealand squad for the three-match series.

Speaking on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, Hall said halfback will be a tough positional group to pick from given the depth in that area across the country.

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Aotearoa Rugby Pod | Episode 14
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Aotearoa Rugby Pod | Episode 14

The Maori All Blacks representative said there are an array of candidates vying for All Blacks selection at halfback, including the four players – Perenara, Weber, Aaron Smith and Finlay Christie – who represented New Zealand last year.

Adding Fakatava – the highly-touted uncapped Highlander who has impressed in Super Rugby Pacific over the past two seasons – to that mix makes for a tight selection race given only three halfbacks are expected to make the cut.

However, while he acknowledged Fakatava’s recent form, Hall said the All Blacks “need to see more” from the 22-year-old if he is to dislodge any of last year’s incumbents from the national squad due to their collective test experience.

That, Hall said, could prove to be invaluable against an Irish side that finished second in the Six Nations and beat the All Blacks last November.

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“It’s tough because there’s depth in that position,” Hall, a five-time Super Rugby title-winner, told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.

“You’ve got Nuggy [Smith], you’ve got Brad, you’ve got TJ, who’s done a lot in that All Black environment, you’ve got Finlay Christie, who you could arguably say is the form halfback in the competition.

“What Folau has done really well, and is probably [down to] the fact that he gets to be at the Highlanders, is he gets to play under Aaron Smith in that bench role.

“If you’re thinking around the All Blacks starting [team], it could go in any direction, but you’d think that Nuggy would be the incumbent starter.

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“What can we bring off the bench? What Folau’s been doing in the last two weeks off the bench and being able to influence games, that’s a real strength of his.

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“That’s a feather in his cap that he can bring, the fact that he is at the Highlanders [playing under Smith], but I think you need to see more from Folau because there are a lot of guys that are proven at that level, knowing that the Irish are coming.

“They’re coming after a really good Six Nations, and then obviously with the result they had against the All Blacks, and so you want to have your three best halfbacks.

“Whether he can come in, I’m not too sure, just because there’s just experienced No 9s around, but if he keeps continuing to play like he is, and there’s an injury there, then he could get an opportunity in that All Blacks squad.”

Parsons doubled down on Hall’s comments, adding that Smith’s vast experience and Christie’s form this season makes them the two first-choice selections at halfback.

Asked whether Perenara and Fakatava are in a head-to-head battle for the third halfback spot due to their points of difference as physical and combative halfbacks, Parsons said Weber couldn’t be excluded from that discussion.

Of that trio, the former Blues captain and centurion noted that either Perenara or Weber might be the preferred candidates as the All Blacks are likely to need their experience against the Irish.

“It’s a tough one. I don’t think you can leave Christie out because, I agree, I think he’s the form halfback and I think he was great on the end-of-year tour as well,” Parsons, a two-test All Black between 2014 and 2016, told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.

“He’s backed that up now with form, so you’ve got to think he’s going to take one spot, you know Nuggy’s going to take the other, and then you’ve got Brad Weber, TJ and Folau fighting.

“I think it may potentially help that he’s [Fakatava’s] got something that he offers that is different, like we’ve seen from TJ over the years.

“I don’t think you can rule out Brad Weber, either, of picking up that third spot and what he can offer that All Blacks squad as well.

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“I know I’ve sort of gone around not answering that, but I just don’t have it clear in my own head, if I’m honest, because the Irish tests are key in terms of, I think, experience could play a part.

“That may give TJ or Brad the upper hand to pick up that third spot.”

Alternatively, Hall – who may face Ireland himself as part of the Maori All Blacks squad in June and July – suggested that Fakatava could instead travel with the All Blacks on their northern tour later in the year.

On that tour, they will face England in London, Scotland in Edinburgh and Wales in Cardiff, with another match expected to be played against Japan.

Hall indicated those tests may be a better opportunity to introduce Fakatava into the All Blacks set-up rather than in the pressurised environment of a blockbuster home test series against Ireland.

“I think also, you’ve got the Irish series and there could be injuries where that happens and Folau could be given an opportunity, but there is an end-of-year tour that is coming,” Hall told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.

“I think the schedule is where we play Japan and we end up going to the Northern Hemisphere after that.

“I know that’s not a lot of time, but that could be an opportunity where they might be able to blood in Folau to get him into the environment and seeing how he goes with that backend of the year.”

The comments of Hall and Parsons come in the same week it was reported that Fakatava, who was born and raised in Tonga, will be eligible for All Blacks selection after being deemed ineligible following a tweak to World Rugby’s residency laws last year.

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