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Victory over the Pumas was not a new dawn for the All Blacks midfield

By Tom Vinicombe
(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Has the midfield pairing of David Havili and Rieko Ioane finally clicked, or did the All Blacks’ game plan on Saturday night just better suit the players’ respective talents?

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Ioane was sublime for the All Blacks during his formative years on the wing but has been a mixed bag in the No 13 jersey since he first converted to the midfield in 2020. Against Argentina in Hamilton, however, the 25-year-old barely put a foot wrong.

“I thought that was probably one of the best Test matches I’ve seen him play for a long time – probably one of his best at centre,” head coach Ian Foster said of Ioane after the match.

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Similarly, Havili has struggled in the No 12 jersey over the past two seasons but was able to call upon his full bag of tricks at Waikato Stadium and, unsurprisingly, looked like a world-class midfielder in the process.

Foster suggested after the match that the two midfielders’ respective performances were a product of the combination gelling after considerable time together in the saddle but that might be overestimating the importance of experience and underestimating how much better the game plan on Saturday night suited the two players – especially Havili.

The former fullback has been regularly employed as a crash-and-bash operator over his one-and-a-half seasons to date in the black jersey (excluding his initial foray into the team in 2018) and it’s been painfully obvious to anyone watching that Havili is simply not big enough to make an impact as a battering ram.

Net-zero gains are not uncommon, as was the case during such a carry off a lineout against Argentina in the loss in Dunedin:

But given Havili’s relative lack of size (his weight sits south of the 100kg mark), worse results have also been common:

That’s not to suggest there’s anything wrong with Havili’s carry game; he’s agile on his feet and when given room to move, difficult to get a hold of. There’s a reason why Havili initially made such a name for himself as a fullback, with the 27-year-old finishing the 2019 Super Rugby season atop the charts for defenders beaten, fifth overall for metres run and ninth for clean breaks.

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Havili is not the man you want hitting the ball up in the midfield, however. While he can get around defenders thanks to his fleet-footedness, he’s generally going to come out second-best when running directly into a tackler.

In New Zealand’s rematch with Argentina in Hamilton, Havili was never employed as a battering ram. Instead, he was given the opportunity to showcase the wide range of skills that has made him such an asset for the Crusaders in the No 12 jersey.

Primarily, Havili looks at his best when he’s operating as a second playmaker – whether that’s using his hands or his feet.

Havili was used as a clearing option against Argentina but with both Richie Mo’unga and Jordie Barrett on the field, he wasn’t needed so much in that facet – but he did call upon his kicking boots when on the attack.

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The first try scored by the All Blacks was the result of this chip through from Havili:

Prop Ethan de Groot was able to eventually fight his way over the line three phases later courtesy of some quick recycling following the defensive rupture created via Havili’s kick.

There was of course an element of luck to the All Blacks retaining the ball following the chip but with tall timber Jordie Barrett and Will Jordan both in the chase line and momentum with NZ – not to mention a penalty advantage – it was certainly an option worth exploring.

Havili attempted another chip later in the first half which didn’t work out for the All Blacks but when an inside centre can run, pass and kick, the opposition will inevitably be forced to cover all three options, which will create greater opportunities for any attacking side.

Against Ireland last year, Havili was one of the few players in the All Blacks backline who was willing to think outside the box to break down the Irish rush defence.

A chip kick to the outer channels would have gifted right wing Will Jordan an unimpeded run to the try line, had Jordan been aware of the tactic:

It was via the hands that Havili caused the most damage against Argentina in Hamilton, however, with the No 12 providing beautiful short balls to both Rieko Ioane and Sam Cane to set up the All Blacks’ second and fourth tries of the evening:

It’s no surprise that Havili looked like he was in such good form in Hamilton, having underwhelmed in Dunedin a week prior – and his growing partnership with Ioane in the midfield has very little to do with it.

When Havili is asked to play to his strengths, he excels. When he’s asked to do a job that he’s ill-suited for, however, he performs about as well as could be expected.

With the match flowing their way almost from kick-off, the All Blacks didn’t need a big presence in the midfield – but will Havili be allotted the time and space needed to work his magic when New Zealand once again come up against the likes of England, Ireland and South Africa?

Havili did not come of age as a Test No 12 against Argentina, he was simply asked to operate in a game plan that suited his skillset. If the All Blacks are able to operate with a similar strategy in the future then there’s every reason to believe that Havili will flourish – whether or not he’s partnered with Rieko Ioane in the midfield.

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