There has been speculation about who will follow in Dan Carter’s footsteps as All Black first five eight for a while now. And with the Super Rugby competition heating up, that speculation ramps up too.
The names of Beauden Barrett and Aaron Cruden have been out there for a while. The name that was added to the list is Lima Sopoaga.
One of the problems with getting a new out half is the cooperation with the scrum half. That is why many teams choose one or the other based on their first pick for the other position as well. It helps a lot when they can rely on each other and train with each other day in, day out. Whenever you look at these positions in a selection, you need to look at their history together as well.
And with Aaron Smith, the Highlanders half back, being the in-form scrum half, the name of Sopoaga floats to the top of the list. In his own right Sopoaga is a great fly half. He has been an integral part of the Highlanders team that won the Super Rugby competition last year and he is a great distributor of the ball. He leads the game well and has a presence on the field. But when it comes to experience, he is not on the level of Cruden and Barrett yet.
There are, however, two other scrum halves that have featured regularly in the All Blacks squad: the Hurricanes’ TJ Perenara has a long partnership with Beauden Barrett, both in the Hurricanes side and with the All Blacks. And Tawera Kerr-Barlow links up with his Chiefs’ half back partner Cruden.
And that is where a large part of Steve Hansen’s focus will lay too. Not only is he going to be choosing a new fly half, he is going to choose who will be the first pick scrum half. And with another World Cup cycle starting now, he is looking at the development of the squad. He has to choose whether to go for an experienced pairing or for a newer pair.
Cruden and Barrett, alongside Kerr-Barlow and Perenara have a fair share of caps between them. And while Aaron Smith is probably the best scrum half in New Zealand right now, Sopoaga does not have that experience. That makes for a complicated decision.
The most likely outcome is that Hansen will end up taking the Highlanders pair and the Hurricanes pair. The reason for that being that Barrett has also proved himself as a full-back. If the full-back of choice is Ben Smith, then the in-form Highlanders playmakers will have another familiar face behind them.
But if something were to happen to him, Barrett can slot into that position. That solves another selection problem on the day for the coach and allows him to pick an extra midfielder on the bench.
It also happens to be the two pairs that played in the Super Rugby final last year.
Sadly it would see Aaron Cruden and Tawera Kerr-Barlow losing out due to simple practicality. But they still have most of a Super Rugby season to change that.
Paul Peerdeman, Pundit Arena