Sonny Bill has taken his game to 'an all new level' in 2012 according to Wayne Smith and Dave Rennie (his coaches at the Chiefs), but the Auckland born code swapper is not the 'be all and end all' of New Zealand rugby. Round 15 of this year's Super Rugby competition reminded us of that salient point.
While a rejuvenated Ma'a Nonu, fresh from a 5 week rest, was busy tearing the Force apart at Eden Park, both with his destructive running game and his fabulous array of miss passes, SBW was busy committing a rugby sin in the dieing minutes at Waikato Stadium, Hamilton.
SBW FAR FROM IRREPLACABLE
With the scores at 28-21 in the Crusaders favour, and the Chiefs camped deep in enemy territory, it was Sonny Bill Williams who collected the ball with a famous victory in sight. The Crusaders were in all sorts of trouble defensively but crucially the Chiefs centre failed to recognise a glaring two man overlap on his outside. His decision to go alone, ultimately lost his side the game.
The Chiefs may still sit pretty at the top of the NZ conference, but Dave Rennie's boys missed a golden opportunity to inflict some mental doubt on NZ's most succesful franchise. Sonny Bill Williams must carry some of the guilt associated with this lack of ruthlessness.
|Crusaders celebrate in Hamilton|
Given his professional sporting history, one would have been foolhardy as All Blacks coach to bank on Williams as your long-term starter anyway. Williams at 26 has already represented Cantebury Bulldogs, Toulon, the Crusaders and the Chiefs in his fledgling career. He will soon turn out for the Panasonic Knights and the Sydney Roosters too.
You know what you get with him; freakish talent that would most likely improve any side in the world and 100% committment while you have him. Loyalty in the long-term however is not really one of the qualities touted so viscerally by agent Khoder Nasser and his travelling circus.
Current All Blacks coach Steve Hansen probably saw this move on the cards and took the opportunity to rest Ma'a Nonu after a long debilitating season. That decision at least seems to have come off.
NONU/SMITH OBVIOUS - BUT WHO BACKS UP?
So, we are left with a Nonu/Smith partnership in midfield again. What's to worry about? They have probably been the most effective and balanced partnership the All Blacks have had in that area since the days of Walter Little and Frank Bunce in the late 90's. Although I'm sure admirers of Aaron Mauger and Tana Umaga may disagree.
The only aspect to question is who will backup Nonu?
Either Steve Hansen and his selectors go for a like for like replacement at inside centre or opt for a strategy change; perhaps utilising a second receiver rather than the 'crash bang centre' which has been so popular of late under first Graham Henry and now Steve Hansen.
Surveying the options available, the selectors are left with, Tamati Ellison, the Highlanders' utility back, and Tim Bateman of the Hurricanes. Others such as Ryan Crotty of the Crusaders or Phil Burleigh of the Highlanders are realistically not contenders (even if their stars have shone sporadically throughout this year's Super 15). Both Ellison and Bateman I think could fill in well, no doubt. I'm not convinced that they would strike fear into the hearts of their opponents though.
TIME FOR A STRATEGY CHANGE?
Maybe this is the perfect opportunity to test another option; Aaron Cruden at 10 and Dan Carter at 12. I've heard from some that this mooted combination would be a bad option, because while 'DC' is the world's best operator at 10, his exploits at 12 are perhaps not to the same standard.
This is perhaps true, but don't forget this option is being mooted here as a back-up plan should Nonu fall foul of injury, not the premier option. I would still opt for a Carter/Nonu/Smith axis as first choice any day of the week.
Why shouldn't we test Cruden and Carter together though anyway? For all we know it could be 'mana from heaven'. Both are confident on the international stage, showcase vision, incomparable game understanding and have a man in Conrad Smith at 13 who could help solidify any potential combination. It would be a tragedy not to give them a run together.
CONRAD SMITH IS KEY
As for the man at 13 mentioned above, I've long been a fan of Hurricanes' skipper. Ever since he burst onto the scene in 2004, scoring a try with his first touch against Italy, there seemed to be something special about the guy. The way he has led his young Hurricanes side this season though is truly remarkable. His standards are impeccable and he is clearly the Hurricanes go-to man.
He cleans up a lot of bad ball and his distribution skills separate him from all the other contenders at outside centre. In an era where power seems to dominate the thinking of the majority of coaches, Conrad Smith provides a pleasant counter-point. He has a snakey, elusive running style and uses his guile and wit to outsmart opponents too, rather than running straight over the top of them.
For my money, Conrad Smith is New Zealand's most consistently impressive player this year.