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RUGBYPASS+ TJ Perenara returns to the All Blacks hot seat

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TJ Perenara returns to the All Blacks hot seat

There was a brief period in late 2016 when TJ Perenara, by right, was winning selection in the All Blacks No 9 shirt. 

There were two factors that created that situation: the first was the unfortunate personal crisis the country’s best halfback, Aaron Smith, was undergoing. Smith was suspended for an off-field act at the end of the Rugby Championship and struggled to recover his form and confidence due to the intensity of the public scrutiny that came with it.

The second factor was that Perenara hit his best run of form since first coming into the All Blacks squad three years earlier.

It felt like a reasonably significant moment – a coming of age almost for Perenara, who had, until then, never quite managed to convince that he was capable of amending his game to suit the All Blacks game-plan and the tougher demands of test rugby.

He’d earned his call-up to the national squad in 2013 because his impact at the Hurricanes was irresistible. The Canes played an open and fast game and Perenara was in the thick of it – fast, strong, aware, almost like an outside back at times.

Perenara has been a Hurricanes stalwart since 2012, captaining the side regularly over the last five years. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

But while his open-field running was brilliant and his defence strong and combative, the finer art of halfback play seemed beyond him at times when he played for the All Blacks and he often looked a little laboured and confused when he came off the bench in 2014 and 2015, as if there was too much going on his head.

Whereas Smith, the man the All Blacks had brought into their starting team in 2012, kept his game simple by getting his hands on the ball early and shifting it quickly. 

There was obviously something not quite right because Perenara played a hugely influential role in driving the Hurricanes to their only Super Rugby title in 2016 and yet he was actually dropped for the June tests against Wales. 

He was granted a reprieve when Tawera Kerr-Barlow picked up an injury and with that lifeline and Smith’s fall from grace, Perenara was able to adapt his game throughout the second half of that year to become the number one choice.

Ahead of the All Blacks last test of the year against France in Paris, he spoke about his battle to establish himself.

A few years I go, I didn’t think I wanted to be like Aaron Smith but I thought that style of play was getting starts – that is what the selectors wanted and I instinctively thought that if I play like that, then I will get more opportunities.

TJ Perenara

“The feedback I was getting from the Canes and the All Blacks was that it was two different roles,” he said.

“The one that I play at the Canes is different and that is what I had struggled with at previous times with the All Blacks. I was still trying to play a certain game plan that wasn’t our game plan so trying to transition into an All Blacks role and then transition back into the Canes is something I am trying to get better at.

“A few years I go, I didn’t think I wanted to be like Aaron Smith but I thought that style of play was getting starts – that is what the selectors wanted and I instinctively thought that if I play like that, then I will get more opportunities.

“But that was wrong in my eyes when I look back on it now. If you try to be someone else you are never going to be as good as them. My thought process now is to be the best me I can be and if it is good enough great and if I fail, I would rather fail being myself then fail trying to be someone else.”

This theme of Perenara being true to himself and his own skills while still meeting the needs of the All Blacks has simmered since 2016. 

His time as the preferred starter was short-lived as by July 2017, Smith had put his personal troubles behind him, regained his confidence and reclaimed the number nine shirt.

The All Blacks took used three halfbacks in 2019 and 2020. TJ Perenara, at 29, is the youngest. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

It has been that way ever since, with Perenara reduced to appearing off the bench and making the occasional start when Smith has been rested.

Mostly that’s been because Smith is a once-in-a-generation sort of player. His skill-set is so sharp and influential that the All Blacks have built their game plan around it and unfortunately for Perenara, whenever he comes on to replace Smith, the contrast in what they offer is pronounced.

Against some opponents on some occasions that difference has been invaluable. Perenara’s stronger defence and more muscular game has been what the All Blacks have needed.

More often, however, it has felt like the All Blacks have lost their attacking tempo and width when Smith has been taken off because Perenara, brilliant at so many things, hasn’t brought the same speed of movement and thought and hasn’t been able to pass with the same accuracy.

The challenge for Perenara since 2017 has been to retain the essence of his natural game, yet, build into it a stronger core component of being faster to the tackled ball, cleaner in his decision-making and more accurate in his distribution.

I didn’t understand myself and my role enough and I feel like the older I get the more I understand that my style of play needs to work in with the game plan instead of the game plan working with my style of play. I do have pros and cons for each game plan.

TJ Perenara on his evolution as a halfback

As he said at the end of 2016: “I think the main thing for me was that I was defined about it. I thought the way I play can suit any game plan and that is something I didn’t understand. 

“I didn’t understand myself and my role enough and I feel like the older I get the more I understand that my style of play needs to work in with the game plan instead of the game plan working with my style of play. I do have pros and cons for each game plan.”

By 2020, it felt as if Perenara was regressing, though. He started against the Wallabies in Brisbane and was loose, inaccurate and muddled in his decision-making.

The All Blacks were a little ponderous and disjointed and they didn’t manage to generate the pace and width they were after.

It was a performance that affirmed the decision Perenara had already made to skip Super Rugby in 2021 and instead play a club season in Japan. 

He never denied that the money on offer was compelling, but what also drove him to Japan was the chance to play less physical but probably quicker tempo rugby that was all about pass and catch.

Having spent the past season playing for the Red Hurricanes in Japan, TJ Perenara wasn’t eligible for the All Blacks until after the July series. (Photo by SportsPressJP/AFLO)

“When he went to Japan, he had a clear focus from us,” said All Blacks coach Ian Foster earlier this year when he recalled Perenara to the Rugby Championship squad. “The good thing about a halfback going to Japan is that we want our halfbacks fast to the ruck … we monitored his progress over there and were pretty pleased with what we saw in that space. We know he’s a confrontational nine, a tough defender, he’s good over the ball, he’s ultra-competitive, so he’s done that for us for a long, long time.

“It was a nice little reminder to say ‘You’re good at that’, but we also want to make sure we keep that threshold of speed in the game. He certainly focused on that in Japan and I thought he did a really good job.”

Which brings us to the present time and the opportunity Perenara has to show the world what sort of a player he now is.

Smith is not expected to play again this year. He’s stuck in New Zealand awaiting the birth of his child and is unlikely to make it to Europe unless his second-born arrives early.

That has opened a door for Perenara and rival halfback Brad Weber to stake their respective claims to the All Blacks number nine shirt.

What makes Smith so special is that no matter how tired he is, his pass doesn’t suffer. He stays true to his technique and while his lungs can be heaving and his legs like jelly, he’ll still throw the pass the team needs.

Perenara, who started twice against the Pumas, is probably marginally ahead of Weber and will start against the Springboks in this weekend’s historic match but head coach Ian Foster plans to mix up how and when he uses them both. 

The one consistent factor he wants to see from both halfbacks, and indeed Finlay Christie when he’s involved, is an urgency to get to the ball, quick decision-making and fast, accurate passing.

What makes Smith so special is that no matter how tired he is, his pass doesn’t suffer. He stays true to his technique and while his lungs can be heaving and his legs like jelly, he’ll still throw the pass the team needs.

Perenara and Weber, on the other hand, have both shown this year in the Rugby Championship that they are becoming more comfortable with the pace and intensity with which they need to be able to play, but that their accuracy hasn’t been maintained at that higher tempo.

This is what it all boils down to: the All Blacks need Perenara and Weber to maintain their urgency and accuracy in combination and the two upcoming tests against the Boks will be the best examination yet of just how capable they are of doing that.

If Perenara starts, or even if he’s coming off the bench, the pressure will be on him to ensure that he plays at the required speed. He can bring his open-field running, his big tackling and adventurous spirit, but at the core of his game, there has to be fast movement and smart execution in the simple business of moving the ball to the right runner.

TJ Perenara started both tests for the All Blacks against Argentina and will again wear the No 9 jersey against the Springboks this weekend. (Photo by Scott Powlick/Photosport)

The All Blacks haven’t hidden their intention to try to break the Boks down through a combination of speed, diversity of movement and intensity of collision.

Big lock Brodie Retallick hinted all that when he was asked why the All Blacks had struggled to some extent against South Africa in recent games: “Where they’ve caught us out the last couple of times, when they did, was through their line-speed on defence.

“They’ve out-muscled us and we haven’t been able to break them down through our attack and then they’ve punished us.

“So, physically you’ve always got the set-piece battle, but dealing with their line-speed and being able to make breaches and then convert them is going to be massive.”

It’s not just about speed, though. Perenara needs to be relentlessly accurate and not throw, as he has done a few times this year, the odd bouncing bomb to no one.

There are another seven tests to come this year and if Perenara want to once again close in on Smith and challenge to be the All Blacks’ starting nine, he knows exactly what he has to do.

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