If the Tri-Nations Started tomorrow, which All Black backs would take the field? It’s difficult to pick an All Blacks team considering the form of the current incumbents. In many cases it comes down to having to choose between experience and form. Halfback, for example, sees Alby Matthewson and Khan Fotuali’i showing the best form and the incumbents struggling. A balance needs to be met, but if a must-win test was being played tomorrow, Graham Henry is most likely to err on the side of experience.
15. Fullback: Isaia Toeava.
This is an extremely competitive position in New Zealand’s teams, and with regular custodian Mils Muliaina injured, the spot is wide open. Toeava, Corey Jane and Israel Dagg are having good years. As a combination, Toeava and Jane win. With his huge kick Toeava takes the spot and Jane retains his All Black spot on the wing.
11. and 14. Wings. Corey Jane and Joe Rokocoko.
As mentioned, Jane keeps his right wing spot from the End of Year Tour. Despite preferring to play fullback, Jane will have to settle for forming a right wing/fullback combination with Isaia Toeava. It’s the best use of both of their talents.
To complement Corey Jane, a playmaker is needed on the left wing. In the absence of Sitiveni Sivivatu, this job goes to Joe Rokocoko, in the position he began his career at 60 tests ago. He needs to continue to up his work rate, but so far in the Super 14 the signs are good. The other form wing, Zac Guilford, misses out in order to bring some variety to the back three. Despite all his skills at chasing offloads, his work rate, and reliability, the All Blacks need a playmaker here, in my position. Ben Smith is difficult to rate considering the form of his Super 14 team.
13. Centre. Conrad Smith.
No question. While previously he was under threat by Richard Kahui, Kahui just isn’t challenging at the moment. Kahui is making good turnovers with his big hits, but is too often guilty of allowing his line to be broken; his missed tackle statistics tell a sorry story. Admittedly he is under more pressure here due to the umbrella defence the Chiefs employ. His poor handling against the Bulls last week were incredibly costly. Conrad Smith, on the other hand, is super reliable on defence and the difference he makes to Ma’a Nonu’s attack when they play together is telling. I’m noticing more of a physical presence this year when he has the ball in hand too, as well as the usual . An honourable mention goes to Robbie Freun. He’s making fast progress, but not fast enough to make the team just yet.
12. Second-Five. Ma’a Nonu.
As with centre, there just isn’t a realistic alternative at the moment. Luke McAllister is being kept out of the starting Blues team by Benson Stanley. Stephen Donald is showing he is a potential bench cover, but fans will be popping blood vessels if they see him starting at no. 12 again. While the only realistic contender, Nonu isn’t having his best year. He needs to tighten his game up, particularly on defence.
10. First-Five. Dan Carter.
As usual, Carter just isn’t being challenged, and he isn’t even in his best form. Hopefully the added pressure of playing in the black jersey will help him sort out his recent kicking wobbles. Having started the last two weeks in a row, Mike Delany is looking like the most likely back up. The jury remains out on whether he is big enough for the test arena, but he looks to have certainly overtaken Donald is the second best first five in New Zealand. Despite all the recent media coverage, Stephen Brett really isn’t consistent enough for test rugby yet. Aaron Cruden and Robbie Robertson are also yet to live up to the hype. New Zealand fans will continue to hold their respective breaths every time Dan Carter gets tackled.
9. Half-Back. Jimmy Cowan.
It’s an interesting time for halfbacks in New Zealand. The best ones seem to be the un(test)capped Khan Fotuali’i and Alby Matthewson. I don’t know whether it will be enough for Graham Henry to risk debuting a halfback just yet, so Cowan gets it by default. Brendon Leonard is showing a bit more spark, but is making too many errors. Piri Weepu is out of form at the moment as well.