New Zealand has always had outside backs coming out of its ears. Traditionally, it’s been the most heavily contested position in the All Blacks set-up. Certainly, it seems to be the position that younger players are able to break into more easily than others – although there are obviously many nuances to a winger’s game at the highest level, arguably the most important facet is simply pace.
With the World Cup just around the corner, the All Blacks have once again found themselves with an embarrassment of riches in the outside backs. There’s jostling in other areas – at prop, loose forward and the midfield, in particular – but nowhere is the competition quite as fierce as on the wings.
In fact, while you can have a good idea now of who will be starting in almost every position across the park if the All Blacks were to make the World Cup final in 2019, the right wing is still anyone’s guess.
On the northern tour at the moment, the All Blacks have taken six dedicated outside backs: Rieko Ioane, Waisake Naholo, Ben Smith, Jordie Barrett, Nehe Milner-Skudder and George Bridge (the latter two only in the extended squad for the most recent match against Japan). Beauden Barrett and Damian McKenzie are also options at fullback – and this weekend’s game against England will give us some transparency over whether McKenzie could be spending extended time in the role.
Of the above players, All Blacks coaches Steve Hansen and company probably envisaged that any one of Naholo, Smith or Milner Skudder could be the premier right winger come the end of the season (with Smith a guaranteed starter on the wing or at fullback, one way or another) – but with only 40 minutes of rugby under his belt, George Bridge may well be changing the way the selectors are thinking.
One half of rugby was all it took for Bridge to show that he has the speed, the vision and – equally as importantly – the hunger, to be as prominent a figure on the international circuit as he has been for the Crusaders over the last couple of years.
But let’s step back a bit.
The All Blacks will be taking a squad of 31 to the World Cup in Japan next year. In 2015, the backs were made up of three halfbacks, three first fives, four centres, and four outside backs (Julian Savea, Milner-Skudder, Naholo and Smith).
It’s hard to see any changes to the current squad in the halves as we progress towards the World Cup (excluding injuries), with Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Beauden Barrett, Richie Mo’unga and McKenzie all likely to travel. Four midfielders, in the form of Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Willams, Anton Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue also seems inevitable. That will leave space for four outside backs, like in 2015 – and you’d have to say that only Ioane and Ben Smith are guaranteed their places on the plane at the moment.
The final two spots will be duked out between Naholo, Jordie Barrett and – in all likelihood – Milner-Skudder and Bridge.
If McKenzie takes to the role of a secondary playmaker well, the selectors may feel that they would be better served having three dedicated wingers in the squad and opt for Naholo and one of Milner- Skudder or Bridge (plus Ioane). Otherwise, Barrett and Naholo will almost certainly take the final two spots.
Should it come down to a straight decision between Milner-Skudder and Bridge, then it’s anyone’s guess who the coaches would opt for right now.
When Milner-Skudder emerged on the scene in 2015, his agility and acceleration was an absolute sight to behold. One season of Super Rugby was enough to catapult him into the All Blacks squad for The Rugby Championship and the Rugby World Cup – where he played in every match of the finals series.
Since 2015, Milner-Skudder has struggled to scrape together successive matches at any level of the game, primarily due to a horrid run of injuries. He’s managed just five matches for the All Blacks since the 2015 World Cup and, quite honestly, has never looked like half the player he was when he took the world by storm two years ago.
The old saying goes that the flame that burns twice as bright burns twice as fast. Milner-Skudder will quite possibly go down as one of the most impressive short careers in international rugby – he came, he conquered, and with the news out of Japan that a shoulder injury has ruled him out of the Maori All Blacks tour to South America, his career in New Zealand could be coming to a premature end.
The fleetingness of Milner-Skudder’s time at the top of the game shouldn’t detract from the fact that he was an absolute superstar when he first appeared – you would have to be, in order to force yourself into a starting All Blacks’ jersey in a World Cup year.
And if it’s not Milner-Skudder in the All Blacks next year, George Bridge looks like the kind of player that could make a real difference on the wing. Yes, it was only Japan that he was unleashed on for forty minutes – but it was more his approach to the match than his work on the ball that impressed.
Bridge was ravenous. He ran hard, he chased everything – he looked like a man who was loving being out on the field. Bridge is not going to get any more action for the All Blacks on this end of year tour it would be great to see him involved in the team once more come the 2019 Rugby Championship.
When the All Blacks team is announced next year for the Rugby World Cup, don’t be surprised to see George Bridge selected ahead of the last World Cup’s superstar, Nehe Milner-Skudder.
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