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Is halfback the All Blacks’ Achilles’ heel or a point of attack?

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    Piri Weepu often led Haka before heading for the bench. AAP Photos

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    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.

    Geoff Parkes
    Geoff Parkes

    Geoff is a Melbourne-based sports fanatic and writer who started contributing to The Roar in 2012 under the pen name Allanthus. His first book, A World in Union Conflict; The Global Battle For Rugby Supremacy, was released in December 2017 to critical acclaim. For details on the book visit www.geoffparkes.com. Meanwhile, his twin goals of achieving a single figure golf handicap and owning a fast racehorse remain tantalisingly out of reach.

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    The Crowd Says (44)

    • Roar Guru

      August 6th 2013 @ 11:08am
      Brent Ford said | August 6th 2013 @ 11:08am | ! Report

      I would like to see Perenara get a run personally. Any of the 3 will more then fill the void left by Piri Weepu.

    • August 6th 2013 @ 11:18am
      ohtani's jacket said | August 6th 2013 @ 11:18am | ! Report

      I think it’s worth mentioning that Weepu struggled against the Springboks in the 2009 Tri-Nations much the same way that they bothered Kelleher at times as well. Having your ball disrupted generally happens when your forwards are being outplayed and generally requires an adjustment, which in the All Blacks case somewhat frustratingly always seems to come after halftime and not immediately. The young halfbacks will get better at playing on the back foot (hopefully.) Weepu will be missed in the sense that he was a guy you could bring on when things were turning pear shaped and he often provided some go forward or leadership, but he really only played well last year in the wet against Argentina (from memory.) I don’t think he really sustained his form for the Blues either. Ali Williams also had strong early form for the Blues but it was obvious by the halfway mark that he was finished.

      It’s interesting that they’ve moved away from the nuggetty, confrontational blokes like Cowan and Weepu. They may lack a bit of toughness and mongrel if they’re getting bullied. I’ll always remember Cowan getting the All Blacks back into the Hong Kong Bledisloe Cup match we lost simply because of how p`ssed he was at the poor start they’d made.

    • Columnist

      August 6th 2013 @ 11:33am
      Geoff Parkes said | August 6th 2013 @ 11:33am | ! Report

      OJ, agree about Cowan, he did have days where his aggression seemed to lift the whole side, but there were also days when this came at the expense of his service to the back line.

      Of the three selected I actually think Kerr-Barlow is very confrontational, particularly on defence. I don’t think the AB selectors have consciously moved to or away from a particular style – they just happen to be the best three players available for the position.

    • Roar Guru

      August 6th 2013 @ 12:48pm
      Nick Turnbull said | August 6th 2013 @ 12:48pm | ! Report

      Here is a bolter – Willie Heinz!

    • August 6th 2013 @ 12:48pm
      atlas said | August 6th 2013 @ 12:48pm | ! Report

      “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”
      and she was a Kiwi import! . . . Gail is from Oparau, near Kawhia, on the coast west of Hamilton, NZ, and is related to former Waikato All Blacks Steve and Rob Gordon. His father Reimana is from Hamilton – hence the strong family ties with the area/Waikato and explains why they sent TKB as a boarder to Hamilton Boys High School from age 13.

      • Columnist

        August 6th 2013 @ 1:08pm
        Geoff Parkes said | August 6th 2013 @ 1:08pm | ! Report

        Cheers Atlas, there’s always somebody on this site who can fill in the backstory!
        I went on a school camp once to Oparau – a few years ago mind. Pretty rugged sort of a place out that way.

        Not so sure about Gibson-Park myself – he looks a little bit light for my liking. But he’s certainly young enough to come on if good enough.

        Nick, I quite like Heinz, but at Super rugby level only I think. And he’s been held back a fair bit by Ellis still playing well enough to hold his spot.

        • August 6th 2013 @ 1:34pm
          atlas said | August 6th 2013 @ 1:34pm | ! Report

          Jamison Gibson-Park – we’ll know he’s ‘something’ when media starts reporting on him as JGP – isn’t that ‘stardom’ these days?
          A long way to go for him, but a promising start already for a 21 year old, he’ll be up against some good halfbacks in the next 3mths of ITM Cup – incl Weepu for Wellington

          On halfbacks, see the Force’s Mick Snowden playing this season’s ITM Cup for Waikato – with Brendan Leonard off to Italy and TKB with ABs, a good signing for them

          Also for Waikato, the Rebels’ tighhead prop, born-in-Auckland (so not a foreign player I suppose) Paul Alo-Emile, who’ll be in the front row with Toby Smith – who joins him at Rebels next year.

          • Columnist

            August 6th 2013 @ 3:08pm
            Geoff Parkes said | August 6th 2013 @ 3:08pm | ! Report

            Thanks for reminding me Atlas – VERY excited about Smith coming to Melbourne next year. He’s been excellent for the Chiefs at the business end and will add more starch to what is starting to develop as a more competitive Rebels pack.

            • August 7th 2013 @ 10:23pm
              Ra said | August 7th 2013 @ 10:23pm | ! Report

              He had a great season, what a great buy for the Victorians, and equally great loss for the Chiefs

      • August 8th 2013 @ 12:23am
        Ra said | August 8th 2013 @ 12:23am | ! Report

        Good stuff Atlas, but they still lay a pretty strong claim to him up here in the (Northern) Territory. He played schoolboy rugby for the Palmerston Crocs (short for crocodile) and schoolboy league for Palmerston Raiders, according to local Territorians. They are pretty proud of their exported sporting talent up in this outback corner of Aussie.

        For our Kiwi contributors, amongst those recent sporting talents are the likes of Olympic hockey gold and bronze medallists Palmerston’s Des Abbott and Joel Carroll; rugby league’s Will Chambers; Benny Barber and James McManus, women’s rugby speedster Bo de la Cruz; cycling’s Cadel Evans and a host top AFL players that most Kiwis couldn’t care less about but who are superstars in their chosen sport.

        Most Kiwis would not know that the Northern Territory is five times the size of Aotearoa NZ, with the population of Kirikiriroa (Hamilton) so it can be a bit of travel to practices for rep players, and Darwin City club involve games against sides in Katherine and Jabiru, 345km and 250km away. And where humans and crocodiles populations are 2:1 ratio.

        And when Tawera took a flying trip home to visit his mum in June last year, he made a point of visiting is old stomping grounds at Moulden Park, the home of the Palmerston Crocs – check out their face book page and see the fantastic mutual respect there is up here between the local territorians and the kid from Tainui – he piko he taniwha.

        No wonder the Aussies think he looks good in Gold

    • August 6th 2013 @ 12:56pm
      atlas said | August 6th 2013 @ 12:56pm | ! Report

      One more young halfback in the NZ queue, Weepu’s understudy for the Blues, Jamison Gibson-Park
      Age 21, one full season of ITM Cup (11 starts for Taranaki 2012) starts his second season this month as first choice halfback as Brett Goodin has taken a contract in Brisbane; 3 matches for Maori All Blacks last year before he’d had a Super game, on the field 11 times for Blues this year incl their match v France.

      • August 8th 2013 @ 8:12pm
        Ra said | August 8th 2013 @ 8:12pm | ! Report

        Yeah he’s a pocket battleship all right; lots of power in a little body – reminds me of a young stacey jones

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