Sopoaga deserves start

Lima Sopoaga deserves a start. Photo supplied

Against a fast moving, in-your-face defence, I believe Lima Sopoaga and Ryan Crotty would form a better All Blacks combination than Beauden Barrett and Sonny Bill Williams.

While only a fool would argue against Steve Hansen’s 89 per cent success record as New Zealand coach, the Barrett/Williams combo has struggled this season against Argentina and the British and Irish Lions.

Individually, both have special gifts with Barrett’s brilliance earning him the International Player of the Year award last year, just as Dan Carter did culminating with the All Blacks 2015 World Cup triumph.

Interestingly, Carter’s World Cup success justified the loyalty shown him by selectors Hansen, Ian Foster and Grant Fox in the face of critics who claimed he was well past his used-by date.

Hansen has always put great store by experience and Carter delivered with a masterly, all-round performance when it counted most.

Blessed with greater speed and try-scoring habit, Barrett is a sharper attacker than Carter. But he lacks his superb tactical nous and ability to put team-mates into gaps with a perfectly timed draw and pass.

Consequently, Barrett and his team struggled against Argentina before Sopoaga came to the rescue to slot into first-five and guide the All Blacks to a 39-22 win with a composed performance.

However Hansen was adamant Barrett would remain the starting No 10 for this Saturday’s test against South Africa and bridled at suggestions Sopoaga was the more reliable goal-kicker.

In truth, with Sopoaga giving the backline better direction, Barrett looked more comfortable at fullback from where he scored a sharp try in the dying stages.
Interestingly that was set up from a sweetly-timed pass from Ngani Laumape, his Hurricanes team-mate who replaced Sonny Bill Williams.

With Ben Smith on sabbatical and injured Jordie Barrett out for the season, Beauden Barrett looks the best No 15 fit in their absence.

To accommodate Williams, the selectors have shunted Ryan Crotty out to centre despite the fact his communicative skills and all round skills make him the best No 12 in the country.

Certainly he was a major success there last year when combining so successfully with international rookie Anton Lienert-Brown.

The other second-five option is the powerful Laumape, scorer of an amazing 15 tries this season for the Hurricanes. However he could be a more dangerous attacking threat at centre if the selectors wished to experiment.

Meanwhile, it seems they will stand by Barrett at 10 in the hope he can overcome the problems he has faced against a swarming defence.

Like Barrett, 78kg Damian McKenzie is an electrifying, crackerjack attacker who can shred any defence but has a few chinks to his armour.

Against the Pumas he struggled to cope with the high punts rained on him because he stood too deep. Sometimes his penchant for hanging around the breakdowns also leaves his team exposed to counter attacks when possession is lost.

Still he remains a brave, exciting player, although his best position still looks to be first-five.

Also exciting is dynamic Tongan blindside flanker Vaea Fifita who showed incredible pace in scoring a try that rivalled Ian Kirkpatrick’s Christchurch one against the 1971 British and Irish Lions.

Having twice beaten Argentina before the weekend’s 23-all draw with Australia, South Africa will fancy their chances against the All Blacks.

  •  Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author

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