Saturday, May 25, 2024

All Blacks have fullbacks galore

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With the injured Jordie Barrett out for the season and Ben Smith taking his sabbatical, one would think the All Blacks face a fullback crisis. Not so, when you consider Damian McKenzie, Israel Dagg and Beauden Barrett are all capable of filling the breech with aplomb.

True, little McKenzie takes risks seldom tolerated at rugby test match level, but for each try he costs, he is likely to create many more.

However, was McKenzie’s reckless pass that gifted Israel Folau an early long-range intercept try in Sunday’s 35-29 Dunedin thriller against Australia.

While his helter-skelter daredevil antics bring rich rewards for the Chiefs at Super Rugby level, at test level the All Black selectors probably believe boldness will not always be his friend if he’s AWOL at the back.

Presumably that’s why they believe first-five is his best position.

But as Aaron Cruden learned during Dan Carter’s reign, earning the right to wear the No 10 jersey is just as difficult now that Barrett has become the Cantabrian’s successor.

McKenzie and Lima Sopoaga’s best chance of getting a start at first-five in this year’s Rugby Championship would be if Beauden Barrett starts at fullback, leaving Israel Dagg and Waisake Naholo as the best right wing options.

However Dagg also remains a very good fullback, as does fellow Crusader David Havili.
With Australia giving the All Blacks a serious scare before Barrett’s second try sealed a nail-biting 35-29 win at Dunedin, it was skipper Kieran Read who stayed cool in the heat of battle.

It was he who called Lima Sopoaga for the short kick-off which he won. And it was he who made a vital break leading to Barrett’s winning try.

But full marks for the Wallabies for taking the All Blacks to the wire despite the dismal record of their Super 12 teams.

They do have courage as well as a classy passing and running game. And it was good to see Will Genia, Kurtley Beale and Folau back to their best.

Unfortunately, All Black Sonny Bill Williams was not and made too many errors in conceding possession.

On the bright side, left wing Rieko Ioane, prop Nepo Laulala and blindside flanker Liam Squire have all taken their chance superbly.

While criticism has been levelled at the team for not maintaining the high standard of last year, not enough credit has been given to the outstanding defence of the Australians and British and Irish Lions in cramping their space.

With the Black Ferns claiming the women’s rugby World Cup in Belfast last Sunday, New Zealand confirmed it is indeed the greatest rugby playing nation on earth.

That win follows the success of the All Blacks in defending the men’s crown in 2015 and the Under 20 men comprehensively winning their world trophy earlier this year.

The foundation for the Black Ferns’ 41-32 win over a strong England side was a strong forwards performance led by veteran captain Fiao’o Fa’amausili, with big prop Toka Natua scoring three of the team’s seven tries and lithe fullback Selica Winiata notching two.

With little ball going her way, brilliant left wing Portia Woodman failed to add to the remarkable 13 she had scored earlier in the tournament. However she remains an absolute superstar, on par with the best of her All Black male counterparts.

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

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