One of the astonishing factors about the unbeaten Crusaders’ domination of the Super Rugby championship has been the form of so many exciting young backs whose ages range from 21 to 23.
Most notable among them has been clever first-five eighth Richie Mo’unga, aged 23, and converted fullback David Havili, who is a year younger.
Given a licence to thrill by coaches Scott Robertson and Leon McDonald, the Crusaders’ young backs have capitalised on the dominance of their All Black forwards with a clever swift passing game that few teams have been able to contain.
With halfback Mitch Drummond, 22, providing a snappy pass, Mo’unga has played with a maturity which belies his tender years, mixing astute kicking and passing with an incisive running game.
Outside him is All Black Ryan Crotty who has found an impressive centre partner is 100kg, soon-to-be 22-year-old Northlander Jack Goodhew, a former Mt Albert Grammar head boy who spends his spare time working for the Salvation Army.
Strong and quick, Goodhew is a heady player who has much to offer on both attack and defence and is being tipped by Justin Marshall as a future All Black.
Also just 22 are gifted left wing George Bridge and adventuresome fullback Havili who has been a revelation in piercing opposing defences with impunity.
Only fearless Chiefs fullback Damian McKenzie has made more breaks and beaten more defenders in the Super Rugby championship this season than Havili, who hails from Nelson.
With Chief Lienert-Brown becoming an All Black last year at the age of 21 and Hurricane fullback Jordie Barrett still only 20, youth continues to make a strong bid
for berths in the national squad.
In fact, at 25, PJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett are relative veterans among a Hurricanes backline whose midfield pairing of Ngani Laumape, 24, and Vince Aso, 22, have combined to score 25 tries so far this season.
With Sonny Bill Williams lifting his game with a strong performance in the Blues 16-16 draw with the Chiefs, competition for midfield berths in the All Blacks squad is going to be fierce.
And with Lima Sopoaga overcoming a long absence through injury to demonstrate his class in the Highlanders’ 44-28 win over the Waratahs, deciding between him and Aaron Cruden as Barrett’s deputy in the tests against the Lions will be interesting, especially with Sopoaga impressing as the better goal-kicker.
So much talent contesting too few places is a problem most selectors would gladly swap places with Steve Hansen, Ian Foster and Grant Fox. But they also have their problems, especially in finding healthy, match fit forwards.
With a concussed Ardie Savea joining Kieran Read, Jerome Kaino, Liam Squire and Dane Coles among the walking wounded, Lions coach Warren Gatland’s confidence will be soaring.
Hansen, of course, is not panicking. But he should at least be concerned because the forward depth in this country falls far short of that of the backs.
Meanwhile, while Blues fans will rejoice at the signing of Otere Black for the 2018 season, I’m not convinced he’s the answer to their first-five prayer although he does have a good head on his shoulders.
The one who will set the competition alight once he reverts to his true berth upon Aaron Cruden’s departure for France, will be the electrifying Damian McKenzie.
- Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author