Williams and Lienert-Brown loom as long term All Blacks midfield
All Blacks

Crotty classy, but SBW and ALB the two to take to the bank

Crotty classy, but SBW and ALB the two to take to the bank

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.

  • If I was the All Black’s brain’s trust, I’d agree with you. But, to play devil’s advocate for a minute, ALB and SBW play in a very similar style, Crotty gives them something different and still quality in midfield, then ALB comes on from the bench. He’s also fast enough to provide cover for the wings, unlike Crotty. At least until you decide to have Jordy Barrett as cover for 11-15.

    With SBW and Crotty, defending against the All Blacks from set piece and in counter-attack is just that bit harder (as if anyone else in the world needs to have that extra headache) because depending on how they set up or which one you’ve got running with the ball you need to do different things, counter an offload, counter a bigger power runner/distributor before contact and so on. Not that SBW can’t be a power runner or distributor and Crotty can’t offload, but it’s not their first thought.

    Now ALB is still quality and for 50 minutes he and SBW looked dangerous against the Lions on both sides of the ball. I would imagine we’ll see them starting together this week and presumably Goodhue on the bench. If it goes really well, Crotty’s life as an All Black might just be over. Unlike Cheika, Hansen et al don’t seem stuck on a particular plan when outcomes show them something else works better.

    • John Tynan

      Won’t be long and Jordy B will probably be able to provide coverage from 10-15! Freak family.

    • Tomthusiasm

      They went with Lumape on the bench over Goodhue, I think his game on Tuesday night, as Brumby Runner mentioned, probably forced Hansen’s hand. Goodhue’s time will come but he probably his lack of game time and the crusaders getting spanked by the Lions obviously haven’t helped his cause. It’s also a bit hard on Fekitoa, who has been in good form, not coming in as a replacement for Crotty but happy for Ngani to get a crack.

      • I agree it seems hard on Fekitoa. I’m not sure whether he missed out because they thought the others were just better or if they felt he hadn’t been working as hard as he could this year and keeping up his standards from last year.

        Either way, Hansen et al are pretty good about letting people know what they need to do to get back into contention and I’m sure Fekitoa wants that jersey back and he’ll be working hard to get back into the squad and the starting line up.

        • Tomthusiasm

          Yeah, I guess you can look at Dagg as a good example of someone who worked his way back into the fold. No reason Fekitoa or Julian Savea can’t do the same!

      • Forgot to say, I think Lumape had a great game and I guess backing up as a sub from Tuesday is hopefully not too bad. You’d expect Alby and SBW to go through the whole 80 minutes. I’d have gone with Goodhue just in case one of them gets taken off in the first 5′, playing 75′ on Saturday after 80′ on Tuesday seems like a big ask.

    • Mica

      Agree. Also Crotty is one of those guys that you don’t miss until he’s not there. He gives really balance to the midfield and does all the hard stuff with aplomb.
      The biggest I example I have seen of this type of player is Richard Hill. Never really noticed him, but boy did the English team miss him when he wasn’t there.

      • Hill wasn’t helped by his main position. Blindsides often get missed for what they do because it’s so often block up the blindside and make a load of tackles around the ruck and hit the ruck second so you disrupt their fast ball and it doesn’t show up clearly on commentary and the easy match analysis you see, unless it’s a spectacular tackle off a scrum to stop a try.

        He got noticed more when he switched to open side after the 2003 RWC but the whole England side went into decline with so many big names retiring. He was also the start of the “two 6-and-a-halves” culture rather than a true fetcher. But when he left they missed his physicality and experience for quite a while and while I don’t like the lack of a fetcher, it’s probably not until post-2015 with Haskell, Robshaw and Vunipola/Hughes they’ve started to look like they’re back to having a truly functional back row again. Even then, the Welsh and Irish frequently show them up.

        • Mica

          I don’t know – I usually notice Kaino. :)
          But in all seriousness, I agree with everything you say, ‘though I think Robshaw is probably a better player than most people give him credit for. Problem he had was that he isn’t a 7, but it was as obvious as the night is dark that he should be playing at blindside. I’m glad he was moved here by Eddie after the RWC. He seems like a decent guy too.

        • There’s always an exception. I usually noticed the late, great Jerry Collins as well and not just for his hair!

          I think Robshaw has become a better player, but playing at 7 as he did at first, and as a relatively callow youth, he was an appreciable step down from Hill. Playing as a senior player and in the right position I wouldn’t put him in a World XV still but I’d have him in contention for a top five current blindsides.

  • Brumby Runner

    And then there’s also Laumape who was close to MOTM for the Hurricanes v the Lions. No shortage of options in the mid field.

    • Mica

      Beat me to it. Then Moala, Fekitoa and a host of others. Just he usual embarrassment of riches…. :)

      • Attizar

        I really like Charlie Ngatai too. But for the sake of his health I hope he hangs up boots sooner rather than later.

        • Mica

          Agreed Ngatai is a really classy player and different to the others mentioned.
          He really is your more classical second 5.

  • Nick

    Great article, thanks Myles.

  • SS4

    I don’t think it’s as clear cut as SBW and ALB for the All Blacks’ midfield pairing for the World Cup as long as Rieko Ioane is in the picture. ALB is a natural 12, and Ioane has long been viewed as NZ’s future 13 – it’s his preferred position from high school all the way to the Blues. He may be a wing for now but he’s a long-term centre prospect.

    Rieko has shades of a younger Tana Umaga and I see a midfield switch for him at Test level between now and 2019, under Umaga as his coach in Auckland. Probably the most naturally gifted kid I’ve seen since James O’Connor.

  • Mica

    Just like to say lot’s of great comments on this article and great insights.
    Gotta say the community here contributes greatly to making G&GR my favourite rugby site.
    Kudos to all of you!

  • juswal

    If SBW had a brain to go with his physique, he might be a good player.

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Sports journalist based in Sydney, covering everything from Rugby to NFL and anything in between. Catch me at Concord Oval every Saturday managing the media for the mighty Pirates

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