Steve Hansen announced his All Blacks team for the first Test against Wales earlier this week. And he gave a first answer to the question of who will replace the magnificent Dan Carter at first five eight.
He selected Aaron Cruden of the Chiefs at that crucial spot, combining him with Aaron Smith of the Highlanders at scrum half. He has Hurricanes half back pairing TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett on the bench.
This leaves out Lima Sopoaga of the Highlanders, probably the in-form man at the moment. And some of his antics recently, including a legendary, Carlos Spencer-esque kick against the Hurricanes, show that he certainly is a contender for the All Blacks number 10 jersey.
And he is of course included in the squad.
Yet it seems Hansen is playing it safe for the first game in choosing Cruden, with Barrett as back up. Barrett can slot into 15 as well, should the need arise, so that selection on the bench makes complete sense. But Cruden is the safe choice for first five eight.
Harking back to Carlos Spencer, who was electric and ecclectic on the field, he was also counter balanced by Andrew Mehrtens and Aaron Mauger. His lunacy on the pitch was needed to force games open, or to inject life into the New Zealand back line, but the coaches often prefered the safe hands of Mehrtens.
And this, right now, seems to be Hansen’s policy as well. He will have to give Sopoaga a chance, but the first game of the series against Wales is a crucial moment. They have just got the team back together and just gotten into playing again, preparing for the end of the Super Rugby season and the beginning of the Rugby Championship. Hansen will want to start off by shoring up New Zealand’s game, choosing safety initially before allowing the Hannibal Smith of the Highlanders to take charge.
Like it or not, he will give Sopoaga a chance, either from the bench or in the number 10 jersey in the second or third match, because the All Blacks need to have this injection of creativity, or lunacy, in their play.
Because playing it safe is not acceptable for a country where there are people born with a silver rugby ball in their hands and a silver fern emblazoned on their chest.
It only remains to be seen how much Hansen will rotate these three first five eights and how he will use them. But there is no doubt that, injuries aside, all three will feature in this winter’s campaigning season.
Paul Peerdeman, Pundit Arena
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