Following New Zealand’s series whitewash over Wales, Kaal Kaczmarek looks at whose stocks have either risen, fallen or stayed as they are within the All Blacks squad.
Beauden Barrett was the undoubted star of the series. His fizzing pace and skills turned the first Test, guided the second and controlled the third. He grew more assured with his goal kicking, although tougher tests loom than the windless indoor stadium in Dunedin.
Israel Dagg gave a telling insight into the confidence Barrett has when he recounted (via Stuff.co.nz):
“He said ‘I’m going to hit it flat and we’re going to get a try’. When you’re feeling it, you’re feeling it eh?”
Ben Smith switched from his preferred full-back position to wing seamlessly and connected brilliantly with Aaron Smith and Israel Dagg to finish some sizzling attacks.
Israel Dagg is back in a big way, with the pace, timing and instinct of old. He was excellent under the high ball on defence, booming punts and intelligent switches of play to set alight the All Black counter attack. Steve Hansen will have some interesting choices when Nehe Milner-Skudder becomes available.
Kieran Read had an outstanding series. Magnificent in lineouts, formidable tacking and intelligent drives and offloads. Not a bad first stint as captain either, just quietly.
Aaron Smith’s passing seems to be from a different planet at the moment and he is a genuine weapon. Perhaps a few more darts could be added to his running game, but there’s no doubting he’s a high class player.
Ardie Savea had real eye-catching explosiveness from the bench in the first two Tests. The 22-year-old’s putting pressure on Sam Cane for a starting position.
Liam Squire did an Ardie off the bench in the third Test. He has height, pace and power. And a mullet.
Joe Moody started every test. The Crusaders man tackled strongly and contributed to a few telling scrums.
Dane Coles maintained his high performance level from last year and his lineout throwing is almost faultless these days. He also rediscovered his midfield runs in the third Test.
Brodie Retallick, AKA Mr. Everywhere, was another player to build back up to his World Cup form during the series. The 25-year-old’s strong in lineouts and an important link player in general play.
George Moala was the only player to make a statement in the midfield. He has the look of an early, unrefined Ma’a Nonu to him. With bruising power and deceptive pace, he just needs to widen his peripheral vision to the other 14 guys on the field and introduce more nuance to his game.
Samuel Whitelock put in some dependable performances coming back from injury without the dominance of previous seasons.
Jerome Kaino was robust as usual and dominant in tackles, which can turn momentum from defence to attack. Still the preferred No. 6.
Owen Franks was strong in general play and powerful when scrummaging.
Charlie Faumuina had some nice touches off the bench and was consistent when starting in the third Test.
Ryan Crotty was consistent without setting the world on fire. The Nelson native’s tackling and combination play improved throughout the series. He delivered exactly what we expected of him. But, will that be enough to keep out SBW and Rieko Ioane?
Sam Cane gave away a few penalties and then a yellow card in the third test but was also able to snaffle a few turnovers. Not as omnipresent as the previous No. 7 owner, perhaps a little bit of mongrel aggression would help his stocks.
Expectations were high for Elliot Dixon but while he was present at every ruck, he had very little ball in hand impact. Dixon was possibly affected by the occasion at his home ground, but he’s worth persisting with.
Aaron Cruden suffered a worrying neck crush and seems to be prone to bad luck with injuries. He played well in the first Test, but was easily eclipsed by Barrett throughout the series.
Malakai Fekitoa had almost the same series as Cruden. Played decently in the first Test without the explosiveness in broken play of previous years. He may have been over-coached and has forgotten his natural instincts.
Julian Savea continues to puzzle and generally look glum. The 25-year-old may need a sabbatical with a back pack and a road map and go out and find the real ‘Bus’.
Seta Tamanivalu is definitely athletically gifted, but looked a little lost in the midfield and had a few tackling issues in the second Test. Tellingly, he was dropped from the squad for the third Test for George Moala, which indicates that more experience at Super Rugby level may be needed.
Kaal Kaczmarek, Pundit Arena