Is halfback the All Blacks’ Achilles’ heel or a point of attack?
New Zealand's Piri Weepu (centre) stands as he leads the Haka before the start of the match. AAP Photos
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen signing off on Piri Weepu’s pink slip on Sunday completes the full changing of the guard from old to new at number nine.
The three halfbacks chosen are all relatively young and, barring significant loss of form or sudden emergence of an outstanding new contender, will carry this team through to the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Statistically, Aaron Smith, aged 24, has 15 Test caps, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22, has four Test caps and TJ Perenara, 21, has yet to be capped.
Weepu, by contrast, is rising 30, and has played 71 Tests. He has battled form and fitness issues at various times in his career, but performed strongly at the 2011 Rugby World Cup and will be remembered as a successful and worthy All Black.
Ironically, this 2013 Super Rugby season was one of his best, playing an integral leadership role in the development of Sir John Kirwan’s Blues side.
Even if he is never seen again in a black jersey, one suspects that he still has plenty to offer the Blues as they seek to convert their improvement into a finals appearance in 2014.
71 Tests is a lot to take out of any international squad, and this poses valid questions for the All Blacks.
Certainly, with an eye to the 2015 Rugby World Cup the timing is good, and there is ample time for all three players to develop their game further and gain the experience necessary to serve them right through a Rugby World Cup campaign.
The All Blacks however, despite overseas press and supporters claiming otherwise, have never been about focusing on the Rugby World Cup only.
It is important for the All Blacks to win every single Test match, every single series, and no true New Zealand rugby player or follower is ever satisfied with a loss on the basis that it is in the interests of building for the future.
It is this factor, as much as any other, which accounts for the All Blacks’ continued success over the years. Hence there is pressure on all three players to perform now.
Given that the Wallabies’ one true world-class player at present is halfback Will Genia, does this current crop of All Black number nines represent a comparative weak point for Australia, South Africa and Argentina to exploit in the upcoming Rugby Championship?
There is a case to say that it does.
Aaron Smith burst onto the test scene in last year’s domestic series vs Ireland, and immediately impressed with his ability to sweep long, fast passes off the ground to his outside backs, as well as using his pace as a back-up support player, similar in many respects to the excellent Graeme Bachop.
He also showed strength and a nose for the try-line to from in close.
On the debit side, he looks to be an inferior player behind a pack which isn’t on the front foot, and can be easily flustered by fringing forwards preventing him from clean access to the ball.
Not that he has this flaw to himself of course, no halfback anywhere likes sloppy, back-foot ball, but great halfbacks – Welsh wizard Gareth Edwards springs to mind foremost – have an ability to stay composed at all times, and turn bad ball into good.
Kerr-Barlow and Perenara are often bracketed together, coming through the system at a similar age, together representing the future.
Both have experienced serious injury, Kerr-Barlow missing six weeks due to a fractured jaw earlier this year, and Perenara missing the latter half of 2012 due to a nasty broken ankle.
They are similarly combative – tough defenders who punch well above their weight, who like to play an aggressive, in-close defensive role as opposed to someone like Genia for example who is better known as a sweeper or cover defender.
But are they good enough to carry the hopes of All Blacks supporters with them?
Neither have a pass to match that of Smith, and only time on the park will tell if they have the composure to lead their team through the tough times which inevitably arise during intense Test matches.
Perenara appeals as the most naturally gifted athlete of all three, however this may be a curse as much as it is a blessing.
Based on this year’s performances for the Hurricanes he is guilty of consistently overplaying his hand, over-kicking and taking on too much himself, when a better alternative is to keep disciplined and let the number 10 control the game from flyhalf.
Self-confidence and self-belief is essential for success at international level, but when this outweighs respect for hard-won possession and for the opponent, then this quickly becomes a negative.
No doubt Steve Hansen believes that the All Blacks environment will serve to temper Perenara’s impetuosity in this regard and eventually provide a suitable balance to his game.
Kerr-Barlow too has much to improve on. In Saturday’s Super Rugby final he was flustered twice in the first half by loitering forwards, Steven Moore on the first occasion and George Smith the second.
The first breakout almost lead to a try, and the second one actually did so.
While referee Craig Joubert should have penalised Moore and could well have penalized Smith, All Blacks supporters will be hoping that Kerr-Barlow learns from both mistakes, and keeps a narrower focus for when a match situation demands it.
Post-final he was compared by some unfavourably to his replacement Augustine Pulu, although to be fair, this was more a function of Dave Rennie outcoaching Jake White in how to use bench players to telling effect against a tiring defence.
As an aside, Kerr-Barlow is perhaps the only current international who could seek dual nationality under the ‘mother-son’ rule, if such a rule existed.
Born in Melbourne, his mother Gail represented Australia in women’s rugby in the mid 1990s.
But for now, the die has been cast and Kerr-Barlow will stay in black, currently ranked behind Smith and ahead of Perenara.
All three will see plenty of game time in the Rugby Championship and it will be fascinating to see how they perform during the series.
It is likely that all three opposition coaches have already identified inexperience at halfback as a possible area to exploit against the All Blacks, and all of the halfbacks can expect to be fully tested in every match.
On the other hand, this represents a wonderful opportunity for each of them – all talented footballers – to take a huge step forward and cement a lengthy All Blacks career.