The Lions Tour is just 51 days from kick off, and every New Zealand Super 18 derby match from now until kick-off will essentially become a trial to represent the All Blacks.
This weekend sees the reigning champions, the Hurricanes, and the Blues going head-to-head. Which explosive, mouth-watering match-ups could play a role in Steve Hansen’s squad decision? Resident Kiwi Kaal Kaczmarek discusses.
1. Sonny Bill Williams and Rieko Ioane (Blues) vs Ngani Laumape and Vince Aso (Hurricanes)
If you haven’t been following Super 18 this season, you might be forgiven for thinking that the Blues hold a huge advantage in this midfield clash. However, Laumape and Aso have been in hot form this season and both currently sit level atop the try-scorers in the competition with seven apiece in just six games.
Aso has been playing on the right wing but moves into centre to cover for Matt Proctor’s unfortunate absence due to concussion. Aso and Laumape share very similar attributes – both are relatively short, power-packed runners with explosive pace and an eye for opportunity. Both must be attracting the attention of All Black selectors and their face-off against two All Blacks in SBW and Rieko Ioane will be keenly anticipated.
Sonny Bill Williams, whether by design or accident, always seems to be in the headlines. However, given that he has just returned form injury, SBW needs a huge performance this Saturday if he is to prove his form and fitness before the Lions series.
Rieko Ioane is another player with a lot to prove. One of the most naturally gifted athletes to emerge from New Zealand in recent years, he started the Super 18 with a scintillating hat-trick but has drifted in and out of games since. He’ll have to play much more consistently against the Canes for the selectors to gamble on him in such a crucial position.
Ioane will have no better opportunity to impress than by running off SBW’s shoulder waiting for an inevitable crowd-pleasing offload.
2. Matt Duffie (Blues) vs Julian Savea (Hurricanes)
In a Blues side which has struggled with consistency, Matt Duffie has become a dependable high class, high-skill presence on the right wing. The former Melbourne Storm league player has sensational ability fielding high kicks, and top drawer pace. He also seems to have Ben Smith-like positional sense to put himself into areas where gaps open.
The one area of his game which he will need to prove himself is his defense, and therefore, who better to test it against than Julian ‘The Bus’ Savea? Savea has been in excellent form this year, scoring five tries in as many games and perhaps realising that his hold on the no.11 All Black jersey is to be fought for, and not taken for granted.
This is the clash of two opposites, with Duffie’s slight frame and pacy skills facing up to Savea’s bulldozing power. A similar clash of styles could emerge in the Lions series and so it presents Savea with an excellent rehearsal opportunity.
3. Augustine Pulu (Blues) vs TJ Perenara (Hurricanes)
With All Black Tawera Kerr Barlow’s decision to take up a contract at La Rochelle in the French Top 14, Augustine Pulu must now be ranked 3rd in the pecking order of halfbacks in New Zealand rugby behind Perenara and Aaron Smith.
Pulu’s career seems to be evolving in the same way as Perenara’s, as both have had to bide their time for international honours and both halfbacks’ game play is showing more and more signs of maturity.
Pulu and Perenara used to get serious cases of white-line fever in the opposition 22, and while they scored many tries with their strength and evasiveness, they just as often ignored better options out wide.
Perenara, in particular, has learned not to overplay his hand, and is now one of the best support runners in world rugby. Pulu has more explosive pace than Perenara, but needs to add more strategic strings to his bow if he is to usurp one of the two incumbents this year.
4. Melani Nanai (Blues) vs Jordie Barrett (Hurricanes)
This is a clash of two players with enormous potential. Nanai had a stellar season in 2016, being called into the All Blacks’ wider training squad and was also selected for the Barbarians for their Northern tour. Equally competent on the wing or fullback, he is a rangy, pacy, elusive runner who has played well without commanding the spotlight this year.
Jordie Barrett, on the other hand, has had a lot of attention with his move to join big brother Beauden at the Hurricanes, and has made every post a winner so far. At just 19 years old, the 6’5 prodigy shows incredible poise and skills, and like Nanai, must be in Steve Hansen’s mind as a utility to cover backline positions from the bench, at least initially.
Jordie, like Beauden, seems to thrive under pressure and on the big occasion and so his performances in the playoffs will be a treat to watch. Both players are only a couple of All Black injuries away from showcasing their sometimes outrageous skills on the biggest stage.