By Ivan Agnew
Considering the loyalty Steve Hansen’s All Black selection panel has given to its veterans, keeping young guns from overseas sharks leading up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup could be a tricky exercise.
With Israel Dagg prolonging his contract, he should be the right wing favourite to start the June/July series against the British and Irish Lions, especially after injuries have currently sidelined Nehe Milner-Skudder and Waisake Naholo.
Certainly Dagg filled the bill admirably with a prolific try-scoring performance last year. But although he is gifted, he lacks the lightening thrust the other two possess when fit and available.
Loyalty in sticking to the incomparable Richie McCaw and Dan Carter paid a huge dividend when the All Blacks successfully defended their world crown in 2015.
Having been plagued with injuries during and after the previous world championship in 2011, Carter was definitely not the form New Zealand Super Rugby first-five. Yet he rose magnificently to the occasion to be named International Player of the Year when it mattered most.
Other veterans like Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith also repaid the selectors for their loyalty. The only one who couldn’t was unfortunate loosehead prop Tony Woodcock who got injured early in the piece.
Since then Dagg returned after missing World Cup duty to enjoy a splendid 2016 international season when Ryan Crotty and Anton Lienart-Brown seamlessly filled the midfield roles vacated by Nonu and Smith.
Having served as McCaw’s deputy for so long, rugged Sam Cane finally took his chance but has plenty of competition from dynamic Ardie Savea and the accurate Matt Todd.
Despite performing so well in concert with Lienart-Brown last season, Crotty can expect a strong challenge from Sonny Bill Williams when the Blues second-five fully recovers from the injury which cut short his Rio Olympic sevens campaign.
Meanwhile, the best performing No 12 in the Super 12 this year has been Hurricane Ngani Laumape who is just one of several young guns who are making a huge impact.
Others include fellow Hurricanes Jordie Barrett and Vince Aso and Chiefs wizard Damian McKenzie.
Having just turned 20, Barrett also fancies the No 12 jersey. But like older brother, Beauden, he’s shown he’s also a very talented fullback.
McKenzie, also an exciting attacking fullback, should return to his true position at first-five when Aaron Cruden takes up his overseas contract at year’s end.
So much talent coming through, but too few positions currently available for them to fill unless they are prepared to exercise patience.
Meanwhile Blues fans had cause to celebrate a deserved six tries to two 38-14 win against the Bulls with former St Kents student and Melbourne Storm league wing Matt Duffie nabbing two.
There were some fine touches from fullback Michael Collins and powerful driving runs from Jerome Kaino and Patrick Tuipuloto to suggest there is much needed mongrel in the pack.
Having showed grit to narrowly beat the Brumbies 18-13, the injury riddled Highlanders should beat the Rebels this Friday night in Dunedin.
The Blues and Chiefs are favoured to win home games against the Force and Bulls respectively on Saturday when the Hurricanes should have too much firepower for the Reds in Brisbane.
On Sunday, the unbeaten Crusaders should complete a New Zealand clean sweep at the expense of the Waratahs in Sydney.
Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author