The All Blacks have built a relatively settled, experienced team since the 2015 World Cup, but they still don’t know their best midfield combination, writes GREGOR PAUL.
Consistency has been the theme of All Blacks team selections since Steve Hansen took over after the 2011 World Cup. He’s cleverly tinkered to build depth in various positions and ensure there is competition for places.
But for the past eight years the All Blacks have had a settled and experienced core around which their success has been built. So much of their side has been settled and as a result several good combinations have been forged over the period.
There has been one significant exception to this since 2016. The midfield has been an area of constant change and coming into this Test season, the All Blacks can’t say for sure that they know their preferred combination. If they do, it will be one they support more on a hunch as for the past three years they haven’t enjoyed selection consistency in that area.
This selection volatility is in stark contrast with the security the All Blacks had in both the 2011 and 2015 World Cup cycles with the long-standing Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith partnership.
Nonu and Smith set a world record when they signed off at the 2015 World Cup final for being the most experienced combination in history and the team’s attack thrived off their stability and understanding.
Ideally, the All Blacks wanted to rebuild a similarly mature and established combination post-2015 and arrive in Japan with a settled midfield and at least one reasonably proven alternative.
But it just hasn’t worked out like that. Injury has been the main problem. They have been cursed and none of their midfielders have been immune. Their bad luck began in the second Test of 2016 when Malakai Fekitoa suffered a nasty head gash against Wales and was forced off after 20 minutes.
Sonny Bill Williams missed all of 2016 – first through his commitment to sevens then because he ripped his achilles at the Olympics. Most of 2018 passed him by as well due to shoulder and knee injuries.
Ryan Crotty has been plagued by concussion and hamstring strains; George Moala tore shoulder muscles when he was starting to find himself in 2016; Fekitoa lost his form and confidence after that head injury and Jack Goodhue, who emerged last year, missed a handful of Tests due to glandular fever.
Given the durability of Nonu and Smith, it’s difficult to know whether the All Blacks’ increased midfield injury toll since 2016 is a sign of a changing game or a consequence of having younger athletes whose bodies haven’t endured the same impacts as Nonu and Smith.
It could just be bad luck but the statistics allude to the midfield having become one of the most dangerous areas on the field.
Whatever has driven the injury toll in the past three years, the All Blacks haven’t been able to achieve what they wanted with their midfield.
In the 42 Tests since winning the 2015 World Cup, the longest stretch the All Blacks have been able to successively select the same midfield is five. In that same time they have been forced into using 11 different midfield combinations and eight different players.
The positive has been that they have developed a wider group of individuals who have shown they can play Test rugby, but the negative is that they haven’t seen a combination flourish.
The danger of coming into a World Cup without having a trusted combination was shown in 2007.
Perhaps it’s not strictly relevant given how much rugby has changed in the past decade, but drag the clock back 12 years and one of the All Blacks’ major failings was not having an established midfield combination.
Between 2004 and the tournament kicking off they did try to build a first-choice pairing but the retirement of captain Tana Umaga in late 2005 threw them back to square one.
Once he’d gone they had Aaron Mauger, Luke McAlister, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Mils Muliaina with which to work – although the latter was their first-choice fullback – and never found a combination that appealed. They had – much like now – five individuals but no obvious partnership and no conviction about which two were the first choice.
They arrived in France with a massive question mark hanging over their midfield and come the quarter-final they panicked and selected McAlister and Muliaina – a combination only tried once before. It had a further element of oddity to it in that the latter had only worn No 13 six times in his 54-Test career and was the country’s best fullback.
It was a bad campaign for many reasons but the lack of an established midfield was one of the more significant failings.
Hansen, who was assistant coach then, knows the importance of finding answers in the next few months.
The most used combination since the last World Cup has been Williams and Crotty, who have had 12 Tests together. They were the two most experienced midfielders the All Blacks had available after the World Cup and they were the obvious choice to develop.
But two problems have emerged – other than constant injuries – that have made the future of that combination uncertain.
The first is they both prefer playing inside centre. Crotty has been able to switch between the two all of his career but he is more comfortable and more suited at Test level to the No 12 jersey.
‘If you ask him he is probably erring towards No 12 I think, because he gets in pretty well in the first-receiver role and our 12 does that a little bit more for us,’ Hansen says of Crotty. ‘Whenever he is 13 it’s just a matter of rearranging a couple of things, so it’s not too hard. We have got a whole lot of different types of midfielders and I like that because I think you need that.
‘But the things that are non-negotiable about the midfield regardless of your skill set are you have got to be a great communicator, you have to run good lines, you have to be able to throw short passes and wide passes under pressure and, I guess, add to that some of the kicking options.
‘If you look at Ryan he ticks most of those boxes and his ability to run nice lines is one of his biggest strengths, so if you get those things right and make good decisions at the end of it then you don’t always have to be the fastest or strongest.
‘He is calm but he works his butt off to get into the right position to be able to see what he needs to see.’
The second problem is that Crotty’s Crusaders teammate, Jack Goodhue, has emerged as the better option at No 13.
Goodhue is now universally viewed as the best outside centre in New Zealand having shown last year that he has everything he needs to become a world-class player.
He does all the requisite physical chores that come with the role these days but he also brings vision, awareness and almost faultless decision-making. What sets Goodhue apart is that he knows how to exploit space and the All Blacks don’t think there is anyone better at capitalising on a two-on-one situation.
‘He’s a very mature young man, there is no doubt about that,’ says Hansen. ‘He’s – I don’t want to use the word overconfident – but he’s got plenty of confidence and it’s justified. It’s just an inner belief as to who he is as a person and that reflects in how he plays.
‘He’s had to be patient. He’s probably not the patient type – he’s in a hurry to go somewhere, which is what I love about him – but having to learn that patience has been good for him.’
The question coming into the 2019 Test season is more about who will partner Goodhue and there are four men in the frame.
Williams is the player the All Blacks have earmarked as the one they would most like to play at 12 with Goodhue at 13, but that is dependent on the veteran proving he’s still the athlete and player the All Blacks believe he is.
When he’s fit and in form, Williams brings the All Blacks a direct linebreaking option and most importantly, he brings an impossible to shut down offloading game.
That’s what the All Blacks missed in 2018 – a midfield player who was able to slip the ball free in the heavy traffic. In this age of rush defences, an offload can change the game.
Williams has what no one else has and he is also a high-impact defender. When he partnered Goodhue in Dunedin last year against France, the two worked well and the selectors probably have this combination pencilled in for the opening World Cup match against the Springboks in Yokohama.
But there’s no guarantee Williams will stay in one piece or play as well as he needs to.
There is also the fact that Crotty and Goodhue play together for the Crusaders and so while they have only had two Tests together, they are well known to one another and are in their third season as a regular combination.
If there is a weakness to their partnership it is the lack of gainline authority.
The All Blacks under Hansen have typically preferred a ‘big’ No 12 who can charge straight and hard to get the team going forward. There is rarely any space to be found in big games and it usually has to be made by brute force.
Nonu was brilliant at getting the All Blacks over the gainline and generating momentum. Crotty is a class player, skilled and clever in the way he runs unpredictable lines, but he lacks the physical presence of Williams and others around the world such as Manu Tuilagi and Ben Te’o.
Ngani Laumape, at 103kg, has the destructive power the All Blacks want, and has been able, in his Test appearances to date, to smash his way through just about anything.
But the All Blacks need more than direct running from their inside centre. They want that player to also have a wider skill set – be able to step in to be first receiver if needs be, pass well off both hands, read the game and have a kicking repertoire.
This has not been a strength of Laumape’s since he was first capped in 2017 and he was effectively dropped last year as a consequence of not doing enough to support his flyhalf.
‘We’ve got a plan for Ngani,’ said Hansen in announcing that the Hurricanes No 12 was not in the Rugby Championship squad. ‘We want him to spend some time with a little bit less pressure, working on his ability to help his first-five [flyhalf] control the game.
‘It’s about decision-making … halfback feeds the first-five, first-five makes the decisions. But he can’t make all the decisions by himself, he’s got to have other people feeding him information, and obviously the closest guy to him is the 12.
‘We just want Ngani to have more of a voice, and to learn how to use that, and to be more confident in using it. Rather than just being out there and doing his thing. It’s about seeing the bigger picture.’
A hybrid of Crotty and Laumape would possibly be the perfect option for the All Blacks and there are some who would argue that in Anton Lienert-Brown, they almost have that.
The Chiefs midfielder is equally at home at 12 and 13 and is both a capable ball-runner who can break defences and a supremely good distributor. His offloading, while executed in a different manner to Williams’, is almost as good and he consistently makes good decisions.
Lienert-Brown has played two Tests in tandem with Goodhue and they combined nicely – so well in fact that there was significant commentary promoting these two as the best combination to pursue through to the World Cup.
The selectors have been resistant to starting Tests with Lienert-Brown because he has proven to be an invaluable asset coming off the bench and so, with six months until the World Cup, the All Blacks don’t have what they wanted: that established first-choice combination in their midfield.
The All Blacks are going to Japan to try to make history but there is reason to be nervous that in one respect, they are going to repeat history and make the same mistake in 2019 that cost them so dearly in 2007.
* Paul is the editor of NZ Rugby World magazine and a rugby writer for the New Zealand Herald.
ALL BLACKS CENTRE COMBINATIONS SINCE 2016
Sonny Bill Williams & Ryan Crotty 12
Ryan Crotty & Anton Lienert-Brown 8
Ryan Crotty & Malakai Fekitoa 5
Sonny Bill Williams & Anton Lienert-Brown 4
Ryan Crotty & George Moala 2
Anton Lienert-Brown & Malakai Fekitoa 2
Ngani Laumape & Anton Lienert-Brown 2
Ryan Crotty & Jack Goodhue 2
Sonny Bill Williams & Jack Goodhue 2
Ngani Laumape & Jack Goodhue 2
Ngani Laumape & Matt Proctor 1