Six months through 2017, and we’re around the halfway mark of the World Cup cycle.
Some countries have fared better than others in their preparation, but there are still plenty of moons left for those lagging behind (Australia, we’re looking at you.) As it to be expected, New Zealand is performing about as well as we thought they would. In fact, they’re probably performing better. As mentioned, halfway through the cycle, areas of the field should start to become a little clearer when thinking about Japan 2019.
Could it be that the All Blacks have already found their midfield pairing for the next WC? Two tests into 2017 and it may very well be so. Admittedly, coming into the year, I had Anton Lienert-Brown and Ryan Crotty penciled into the 13 and 12 jerseys. They had combined well and had played good footy with each other over the past 12 months.
Lienert-Brown did nothing to hurt his chances in his nation’s opening test this year again Samoa. Each and every one of his touches was classy, and 5 of his side’s 10 tries came either from or by way of ALB (1 try, 4 try assists.) But what perhaps stood out most about Lienert-Brown’s play was his combination with Sonny Bill Williams. After some clear nerves in the first half, the two really opened up and cut loose in the second.
Speaking of Williams, his return to the AB jersey was as classy as you’ve come to expect. His offloading (4 for the night) came through as fast and furious as ever before, creating holes where there was none, if not for a misfire every once in a while.
Surprisingly, ALB lost his spot to Ryan Crotty in the starting side for the first British and Irish Lions test. He did however come on in the 23 jersey when Crotty did a hamstring after the 32nd minute. Lienert-Brown did his job when he came on, although he did lose Elliot Daly in defence on a tough read for the Lions’ first try of the night. If anything, it is that point that will keep him on the bench in favour of Crotty.
However, it was SBW who stood out that night against the B&I Lions. Having been instructed to rein in offloading game by Head Coach Steve Hansen, Sonny Bill made it his effort to be the best defender in his backline for the night, and he managed it, making 8 tackles, the most of any back. He was also smashed in a tackle after half time by fellow rugby league convert Ben Te’o, deemed illegal by referee Jaco Peyper.
Alby and Sonny spoke of their mutual admiration ahead of the first Lions test; “I guess it’s just his physical presence and I know if you run good lines off him, more often than not he can get the ball away,” Lienert-Brown said.
“He’s really keen, an exciting young guy,” Williams said, “It’s good to see his work ethic paying off. He’s got a tremendous offloading game, and what I really like is he’s always keen to learn.”
Unfortunately, this leaves Crotty as the odd man out.
This is unfair for a number of reasons; not least that he is arguably the form 12 in Super Rugby, but he has also started only 2 of his 28 tests to date, as his career as a bridesmaid for the Blacks. Of course, you could bring Crotty off the bench, but he only plays in the midfield, and that would also require leaving out one of Julian Savea, Israel Dagg and Reiko Ioane. Welcome to life as a New Zealand rugby player.
With that, I’m laying my cards on the table. SBW is simply too good, and ALB too young and talented, to leave either of them out of the starting side, and as of June 2017, those are the two I’m taking to the bank come World Cup time.