If the All Blacks are going to have any hope of winning this year’s Rugby World Cup, Ian Foster must throw caution to the wind and make a big change at halfback.
The likes of France, Ireland and South Africa have had New Zealand’s number in recent times and while the All Blacks could spring a surprise in the finals series – assuming they get over Italy in a fortnight’s time – it would take a brave punter to suggest that the team can go all the way, simply based on recent history.
For one thing, NZ’s kicking game is simply not up to snuff, even with both Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett in the line-up. They’ve also found themselves on the backfoot and unable to generate quick go-forward later in games when their substitutes have entered the fray.
The elevation of Cam Roigard to a starting role in the team, however, could fix both of those problems.
Roigard has been locked in a head-to-head with Finlay Christie this year to back up Aaron Smith and while many have called for Roigard’s continued selection in the No 21 jersey, Ian Foster and his fellow selectors have appeared unconvinced, seemingly favouring Christie’s comparative experience and defensive work.
Roigard, in his first year as an All Black, was handed bench roles against Australia in the opening Bledisloe Cup clash of the season and again in the exhibition match played at Twickenham where NZ were put to the sword by South Africa late last month. In small snippets, the young scrumhalf showcased his prodigious running game – scoring a individual try against the Springboks that should go down as one of the greats – and his hefty left boot.
It wasn’t enough to win favour with the selectors, however, and Christie was reinstated on the bench for the World Cup opener – though Foster acknowledge earlier this week that the make-up of the reserves was still very much up in the air.
There was an almost Antoine Dupont-like nature to the way Roigard ducked, dived and dodged inside Namibia’s 22.
Although Christie does have a couple of strings to his bow – defensively, he’s probably the strongest halfback that NZ have available at present – his work at the base of the breakdown isn’t quick enough or deceptive enough to put opposition defences under pressure.
Neither Christie nor Roigard boasts as quick or as accurate a pass as the All Blacks’ incumbent No 9, but Roigard’s well-timed snipes combined with his upper body strength means defences will always be in two mind’s when he’s tasked with the halfback duties or – as Namibia learned on Friday night – face the consequences.
Like any good halfback, Roigard ran excellent support lines throughout the 71-3 drubbing and profited with two tries to his name but he also created two try-scoring opportunities for his teammates, which they duly took advantage of.
There was an almost Antoine Dupont-like nature to the way Roigard ducked, dived and dodged inside Namibia’s 22, always looking like he was going to get scragged but also somehow always managing to evade the would-be tacklers.
“He played really well,” Foster said after the match.
“He had a pack that was giving a platform clearly, but he took his opportunities. It’s one thing to have good go-forward ball but he made really good decisions with that and he should be really proud. We saw the benefit of his running game.”
Yes, it was only Namibia – a team that’s never tasted victory at a World Cup – but Roigard’s body of work hasn’t just been built against international minnows; he was comfortably the top performing halfback throughout Super Rugby Pacific and he’s seemingly carried that form into the Test season. With the World Cup on the line, now is the time for Foster to take a (small) punt and give the 22-year-old starting duties in the matches to come.
Because while Aaron Smith remains a top-tier halfback, you get the sense that Roigard’s multi-faceted skillset could be better employed from the first minute of a Test, especially with his educated boot. For all Smith’s talents, he’s never quite mastered the art of the long-distance box kick – something that Roigard already packs in his not insignificant arsenal.
So often a hallmark of the All Blacks in the past, Foster’s men have struggled to remain a force right until the final whistle.
Roigard only had to make one kick from the base of the ruck on Friday, but had no issues sending the ball all the way to the 50-metre line from inside New Zealand’s 22. It was, again, eerily Dupont-like.
Smith’s talent, on the other hand, could be best utilised against relatively tiring defences in the final quarters of matches, sending charging ball-runners into gaps and upping the tempo when the game is in its dying embers.
So often a hallmark of the All Blacks in the past, Foster’s men have struggled to remain a force right until the final whistle – that was the case in Johannesburg last year and again when they faced off with England on their end-of year tour, ceding relatively sizeable leads in both matches, sneaking home against the Springboks before giving up the win in Twickenham. Having Smith’s experience on the park to aid the All Blacks’ final push could ensure the All Blacks are able to play to the final whistle instead of giving up the ghost with time up on the clock.
Historically speaking, the All Blacks have generally been reluctant to throw new players into starting roles – particularly in the key driving seats at halfback and first five-eighth and especially when faced with top-tier opposition.
In 2012, however, after a remarkable Super Rugby campaign, Aaron Smith was given the keys to the kingdom by the All Blacks coaches and it ensured the were the most dominant team on the planet over the following four-year cycle.
It’s now time for that baton to be passed to Cam Roigard. The youngster is certainly worthy of a spot in the match-day 23 but it could be in a starting role that’s he best able to help the All Blacks as they search for the secret formula to another World Cup title.