Sunday, December 10, 2023

Agnew’s Angle: Top players will miss out

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Asafo Aumua is one of three remarkable players from the NZ U20s to look out for in the Mitre 10 champs this year. Photo: YouTube

“Many are called but few are chosen,” is a biblical quote that will apply to tomorrow’s selection of the All Blacks to play the British and Irish Lions.

There has never been such depth of backline talent where established stars are being challenged by young guns Damian McKenzie, Jordie Barrett, Rieko Ioane, Ngani Laumape and Vince Aso.

While selectors Steve Hansen, Ian Foster and Grant Fox have generally remained loyal to the old guard, their gamble on exciting new wing Nehe Milner-Skudder paid a rich dividend at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

So did their decision last year to convert super sub utility Beauden Barrett into a superstar first-five and introduce centre Anton Lienert-Brown to test rugby outside Ryan Crotty.

Whereas Lienert-Brown was the find of 2016, Jordie Barrett looks set to take over that mantle this year following his outstanding Super Rugby form at fullback for the Hurricanes.
Although Ben Smith remains the world’s best fullback, when it comes to razzle dazzle there’s none better than the 80kg McKenzie who outshone gifted Wallaby international Israel Folau last weekend when the Chiefs beat the Waratahs 46-31.

So involved was the mercurial McKenzie, whether running from fullback or taking the ball as first receiver, there appeared to be three of him on the field.

While he is sometimes too adventuresome in venturing where angels fear to tread, his risks more often than not reap rich rewards from which team-mates profit.

With Aaron Cruden moving to France, McKenzie is likely to revert back to his favoured first-five berth next year.

While second-five remains Jordie Barrett’s favourite position, the Hurricanes are happy to keep him at fullback, especially with Laumape forming such a lethal midfield combination with Aso.

That pair has each scored a competition high 14 tries, four more than next best, Rieko Ioane and James Lowe, on 10. If that doesn’t give the selectors food for thought, I don’t know what will.

However, with Sonny Bill Williams an old favourite, Malakai Fekitoa returning to top form and Ryan Crotty maintaining his high standard until crocking his ribs in the Crusaders’ last game, breaking into the squad won’t be easy for new chums.

Unlike most critics, I wouldn’t be too critical about the jet-lagged Lions 13-7 tour opener against the gallant Barbarians team of semi-professionals and amateurs.

Six Nations form showed they are much better than that, though credit to the Barbarians for their gutsy display with first-five Bryn Gatland directing play so intelligently against the British and Irish Goliaths coached by his father, Warren.

Good as it was, it wasn’t good enough to persuade Blues coach Tana Umaga to pick him ahead of young talent Stephen Perofeta for his team’s eagerly awaited clash against the Lions at Eden Park.

With the Times deadline demanding this column be penned before that game, it was an important fixture which offered each side a chance to regain respect.

Despite lying fifth and last among the NZ Super Rugby teams, the Blues are not a bad team, having lost just once to an outside combination. Still it was a shame Rene Ranger and Melani Nanai didn’t get a start against the Lions. Ranger scored a sharp try against the Waratahs and his offloads were superior to any other centre tried by the Blues this season.

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

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