Surely the toughest back in world rugby to tackle is juggernaut Ngani Laumape who scored four stunning tries in the Hurricanes 42-24 triumph against the Blues in Wellington last weekend.
They were reminiscent of the storming runs once associated with the late Jonah Lomu and Julian Savea, two wings who were unstoppable when at their prime.
Yet with the All Black selectors preferring injury prone 32-year-old Sonny Bill Williams as their starting second-five, Laumape struggles for game time in test rugby.
Having scored 15 tries in Super Rugby last year, that remains a mystery, especially when his ability to crash over the advantage line with hard, straight running offers his forwards quick recycled ball.
True, it helps having creative players like PJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett inside him. But Laumape’s fearless running makes him a huge asset to any team whether he wears the No 12 or 13 jersey.
At 27 years of age, 1.78m tall and tipping the scales at 97kg, the muscular Laumape is dwarfed by Williams’ 1.93m and 108kg. However he is a more bruising attacker than the champion ball distributor who has had a rotten run of injuries since the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Meanwhile the Blues can count themselves lucky that Rieko and Akira Ioane have remained loyal to them rather than head off to a more successful franchise.
That is particularly true of 23-year-old Akira who, at 1.94m and 113kg, is an incredibly-gifted athlete awaiting a decent forward coach to make him the great, low slung No 8 that Counties-bred All Black captain Kieran Read became upon moving to Canterbury and the Crusaders.
Luke Whitelock filled the No 8 berth in the injured Read’s absence in the three-test series against France because of his strong work ethic, solid defence and lineout prowess. But as an attacking player he’s not in Akira’s class.
Meanwhile Blues coach Tana Umaga must be wondering at the wisdom of playing Rieko Ioane at second-five against wrecking ball Laumape after the latter stormed to his four tries.
Admittedly the speedy Rieko did score two tries, but as the world’s best left wing he looked out of position.
If Umaga wants to continue to experiment with him next season centre should provide more space in which to utilise his speed.
With just one game to play against the table-topping Crusaders it has been another bitterly disappointing year for a Blues team that continues to lack cohesion.
With the Crusaders trouncing the gallant Highlanders 45-22 at Christchurch, Richie Mo’unga completed a hat-trick by outplaying the three best first-fives in the land, having shaded Beauden Barrett and Damien McKenzie earlier.
This time it was Lima Sopoaga who remains a very good player. As a general who reads the game so well, Mo’unga also has some of the attacking flair that makes Barrett and McKenzie so exciting.
Although the All Black selectors have tremendous backline depth to choose from for the Rugby Championship, injuries have thinned their forward options.
With their top eighth all suffering injuries at different stages this season, they will be hoping Kieran Read stays sound following back surgery. Ditto champion lock Brodie Retallick whose shoulder injury sidelined him for six weeks.
- Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author