Who will be the next All Blacks bolter?
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: The top brass of the NZRU was in attendance in Wellington on Friday to see two of New Zealand’s top sides play, with one eye on the game and the other on their notebooks.
Whilst the main attractions Beauden Barrett and Damian McKenzie went toe-to-toe, they surely took note of the two other players – Ben Lam and Solomon Alaimalo. The two-power running left-wingers have been in hot form this season, Lam for his try-scoring exploits and Alaimalo for his ability to clock up metres with strong and explosive carries.
Both put in what could be said is their best performances of the season last night. Lam showed more than just finishing ability. His speed and power resulted in three line breaks and a whopping 139 running metres, illustrating his game-breaking ability. He scored a brilliant opening try running into space off Laumape, hitting the gap and beating three defenders over 40 metres to score under the posts.
Alaimalo was just as dangerous, clocking up 157 metres with four line breaks which could have been more if the Chiefs did not blow a number of opportunities. Taleni Seu had an opportunity in the first half down the left edge to draw and pass and decided to dummy, while Ngatai blew a certain five-pointer by kicking ahead for Alaimalo which veered infield instead of passing.
One moment, in particular, showed the class of both players – after Barrett launched an NFL-style quick throw-in, Lam cut through a disjointed Chiefs defensive line beating a number of defenders before offloading brilliantly in the tackle. Jordie Barrett tried to finish the movement by taking on Alaimalo on the outside who would not be beaten – he claimed Barrett and dislodged the ball forcing a knock-on in a try-saving tackle.
Lam and Alaimalo sit number one and two on the list of most line breaks in the competition, while Alaimalo has the most defenders beaten of any winger (Lam sits third). Alaimalo leads all wingers in run metres, although benefits from having played a number of games at fullback where kick return metres inflate the figures. On form, you would say both of these guys should be picked.
After last year’s breakout season, Rieko Ioane is the number one left wing option despite being part of a positional ‘musical chairs’ at the Blues this year.
However, the All Blacks started three different left wings in 2017 – Julian Savea, Rieko Ioane and Nehe Milner-Skudder, which tells us that a) Rieko will likely be rested at least once and b) the All Blacks like to explore options. On the other side, four wingers were used – Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo and Milner-Skudder.
With Julian Savea making a push for a crowded right-wing position and Nehe Milner-Skudder still recovering from injury, it is conceivable that we see a new left-wing play for the All Blacks this year. Ben Lam or Solomon Alaimalo should be the first ones considered. Alaimalo, in particular, offers flexibility who can cover the fullback position which gives him the edge.
In-form Super Rugby players can be quickly capped and tested, but may not become regular pieces – Seta Tamanivalu (3 test caps), George Moala (4 test caps), Charlie Ngatai (1 test cap) are a few examples from the backs. Last year’s crop of debutants includes boom second-five eighth Ngani Laumape (4 test caps) who started against the Lions but did not see much time once Sonny Bill came back.
I would not be surprised to see one of two in a black jersey in a few months time.