As anticipation increases towards the 2017 Lions tour, attention has turned to Steve Hansen’s selection strategy with the All Black squad. While it is generally expected that Hansen’s loyalty to his test regulars will be reflected in the run on 15, there is a real possibility that the electric young stars of New Zealand rugby may be introduced as ‘finishers’ from the bench.
Steve Hansen has a treasure box of riches in player quality at his disposal. While he has a few injury concerns in key areas, he should have a wealth of test experience to chose from in selecting for the first Lions test on June 24th. But what about rolling the dice and introducing the unexpected? As we have seen in the past, the bench has been a key difference between the All Blacks and other sides in recent seasons. Until last year, Beauden Barrett was the expert ‘finisher’ for the All Blacks, most memorably so with his try against Australia in the World Cup final in 2015. Now that Barrett has cemented the no.10 starting jersey, who could be the young game-breakers to be introduced against tiring Lions legs in the second halves?
Here are the leading contenders:
Who better to bring on when gaps start opening up and a spark is needed in attack? McKenzie has scintillating pace off the mark, great feet and outrageous skills. He is also a handy goal-kicker and has the confidence and self-belief to back himself in a pressure situation. Easily the leading player in metres run in Super 18, he can cover flyhalf, fullback, wing and even halfback. Every rugby fan would love to see him and fellow hot-stepper Nehe Milner-Skudder in tandem in the same backline.
Ioane has devastating power and pace, and a poise which belies his age at just 20. He has already had a taste of All Black rugby on the Northern tour last year, and his switch back to the wing has coincided with an upturn in form for the Blues. Can cover wing or midfield and would stop any Lions breathing a sigh of relief if he replaced Julian Savea off the bench.
There was a lot of hype about Jordie Barrett’s move to join big brother Beauden in the Hurricanes backline this season. Young players often don’t live up to the superlatives but 20-year-old Jordie has shown why he has been touted so highly. From his positional sense, to his outrageous offloads, to his uncanny connection with brother Beauden, the signs are that not much fazes this kid. Can cover fullback, midfield and flyhalf (and probably lock too given he stands at 1.96m).
He might not be as physically intimidating as Rieko Ioane, or have quite the range of skills as McKenzie or Barrett, but 23-year-old Melani Nanai is a real gamebreaker. He has searing pace, elusive feints, and the natural instincts to put himself in positions to break open backlines. Nanai was a star for the Barbarians side on their Northern tour last year, and will hopefully get the chance to show his undervalued talents on even bigger stages soon. Can cover fullback and wing.
Ngani Laumape and Vince Aso
Laumape, alongside his midfield partner, Vince Aso, have had standout Super 18 seasons. The two power-packed and pacy centres lead the Super 18 try-scoring table and their familiarity with the mind and plays of Beauden Barrett must count in their favour. 24-year-old Laumape has a better all-round game and more power, but 22-year-old Aso probably shades Laumape for pace. Both can cover midfield and wing.
Goodhue has risen through the national representative ranks to the Crusaders side, where the 21-year-old has been a key part of their lethal young backline this season. With strong pace and power, and an excellent decision-making and offloading game. Could be the long term replacement for Conrad Smith. Can cover midfield.
Akira Ioane’s season has sparked to life in recent Super 18 rounds, and with the high attrition rate amongst the All Black third rowers, he must now loom as a serious contender for a bench role against the Lions. As athletically gifted as his his brother, Rieko, the 21-year-old could be a devastating impact player for New Zealand. Think Billy Vunipola with afterburners. Can cover no.8 and 6.