With Lions fever gripping England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales ahead of the team announcement later this month, Aled Price takes a look at New Zealand’s strongest backline and just the damage it could do to Warren Gatland’s Lions.
Starting with Aaron Smith, here are the All Blacks who could really tear the tourists open.
9. Aaron Smith
The diminutive scrum half is the All Blacks’ little general. The Highlanders man is back to his best after a poor 2016 by his standards. Off the field trouble and a loss of form towards the tail end of last year blighted an otherwise immaculate international career so far.
The rise of TJ Perenara is putting even more pressure on, but class is permanent and Smith is just pure class.
10. Beauden Barrett
The best player in the world. He carves upon defences like Moses did the red sea, with his performances this season being almost biblical. Picking up where he left off last year, after winning the World Rugby Player of the Year award, his extensive skill set and abundance of talent mean he is flourishing once more.
Question marks remain over his goal kicking. I would expect to see a combative Lions back row to test the breakdown to the limit. Will this weakness cost the All Blacks?
11. Julian Savea
‘The Bus’ has started the season with a bang for the Hurricanes. Where in previous years question marks have loomed over his fitness and desire, he appears razor sharp and lean this campaign. A startling strike rate of 45 tries in 52 appearances, he appears to be back in scintillating form. He is, however, not without weakness.
Ireland exploited his aerial ability and with Conor Murray and Rhys Webb both fine box kickers expect the Lions to target him in this area.
12. Anton Lienert-Brown
The breakout star of New Zealand rugby last year. The 21-year-old is once more in spectacular form for the high flying Waikato Chiefs. An offloading game to rival Sonny Bill Williams, he is a natural footballer.
Equally adept stepping off both feet and passing off both hands, as well as having the stature to get over the gain line he is the modern 12. The perfect second distributor with such a powerful set of ball carriers outside him. Just as comfortable in the 13 shirt, I would love to see him in his more natural position at second-five eighth.
13. Malakai Fekitoa
Standing at 1.88m and weighing in at 100kg, the Highlanders centre is a specimen. Originally overlooked by the Auckland Blues, his move to the South Island in 2014 sparked sensational from, ensuing a call-up for the All Blacks shortly afterwards. Blessed with a tremendous ability to break a tackle, he has started this season superbly with eleven clean breaks and four tries.
Nevertheless, he has been caught in defence several times in recent years. Not quite as gifted as his predecessor Conrad Smith in his ability to read the opposition in defence, he can sometimes struggle with who to pick in a congested strike move.
However, if Fekitoa and Lienert-Brown can click, with their offloading and hard running games individually complimenting each other, then chaos will ensue for the Lions.
14. Waisake Naholo
The mammoth winger was in blistering form before injuring a hamstring almost a month ago. An outrageous mix of pace and power, the man born in Fiji is both destructive on a short line and devastating in open space. His finishing abilities are right up in the top drawer and just edge Israel Dagg’s superior aerial and kicking abilities in the head-to-head.
This is probably the most competitive position in the backline, with hot stepper Nehe Milner-Skudder and young prodigy Rieko Ioane also vying for the second wing spot. A lack of game time recently and experience just edge them out of the equation. However, expect Dagg and Naholo to fight it out for the 14 jersey.
15. Ben Smith
Simply put, the best full-back in world rugby. Solid under the high ball, beautiful support lines and an open field running game to rival anyone. ‘The Accountant’ is the best operator there is. A potential weakness could be his kicking, but rarely is he required to call upon it under pressure.
Scoring eight tries in 2016 he had a fine individual season and has carried on in a rich vein of form this year in Super Rugby. Regardless of what pundits and fans have said about the form of other fullbacks in New Zealand, do not anticipate anyone else – injury aside – to be in the 15 shirt for the Lions series.
Aled Price, Pundit Arena
[gravityform id=”1″ title=”true” description=”true”]