New Zealand rugby has long been blessed with an abundance of choice for every player, position and style you could imagine.
And with a Rugby World Cup on the horizon, players from every corner of the rugby-obsessed nation are fighting for spots.
But there’s also a player 9000 kilometres away who’s been playing himself into consideration for the past two seasons.
Sunwolves fly-half Hayden Parker has been unbelievable over the last two years. The former Highlander, born in Oamaru, kicked a record 38 consecutive goals in 2018 followed by another run of 32.
His happy knack of slotting them through the posts has presented Steve Hansen and co. an interesting conundrum come selection time.
The three players fighting for the fly-half position are the Hurricanes’ Beauden Barrett, the Crusaders’ Richie Mo’unga and Parker.
Barrett is the incumbent five-eighth, and deservedly so after winning the World Rugby player of the year in 2016 and 2017. He will most likely be the starting No.10.
It is the reserve fly-half position, however, that will be the most fascinating.
Should the bench player be an attacking playmaker who imposes himself on the opposition defence?
Or should it be a player who is almost guaranteed to bank the points when required?
Opinions differ as to which style is most beneficial for the All Blacks’ chances at the World Cup.
First, let’s analyse the statistics of Mo’unga and Parker side by side.
Mo’unga has played one less game than his counterpart this season, and while his kicking percentage sits at 66 per cent, Parker’s is an astonishing 94 per cent.
Parker has nailed 34 from 36 this season whereas Mo’unga drops to 26 from 39.
So with the kicking issue out of the way, let’s move on to the attacking facet of the game.
Mo’unga tends to lead in this area but Parker is by no means a slouch. Mo’unga leads Parker in offloads, tackle busts and fly-half runs by three, eight and 13 respectively.
He also has five line breaks and two tries to Parker’s two line breaks and no tries this season.
One attacking asset that Parker resoundingly leads Mo’unga in is line break assists, ten to three.
You also need to take into account the teams they play for. At the Sunwolves, as indicated by the stats, Parker may be the one required to spark his side’s attack and that is reflected in his ten line break assists.
On the other hand, at the Crusaders, Mo’unga is not the only attacking threat in their back line and therefore has the freedom to drift in and out of the attacking plays as he chooses.
After looking at the stats, let’s took into the future.
At the 2019 World Cup, New Zealand will play South Africa in a pool game. South Africa are a traditionally conservative, kicking-based team but they are working on making themselves into an attacking powerhouse as well.
South Africa’s likely playmakers will be the Lions’ Elton Jantjies and Bulls skipper Handre Pollard. Pollard, in fact, leads the Super Rugby competition in total points with a whopping 123 after Round 11.
Pollard is kicking at 84 per cent this year and Jantjies at 72 per cent. Both of these South Africans kick at a higher percentage than Mo’unga, but a lower rate than Parker, which augurs well for him.
Moving onto the quarter-finals and it is likely NZ will face Ireland or Scotland.
Ireland possess Johnny Sexton and Scotland have Finn Russell. Once again, Sexton and Russell sit between Parker and Mo’unga with their goal-kicking percentage.
Sexton kicked at 77 per cent for Ireland this year and is going at 92 per cent for Leinster. Russell, on the other hand, kicks at 77 per cent and 78 per cent for Scotland and Racing 92 respectively.
Once again, both of these nations place high importance on their kickers constantly securing points and accumulating their side’s total. These statistics once again bode well for Parker.
Finally, if New Zealand makes it past the quarters, a possible match-up is set for England.
Owen Farrell is their five-eighth and his pre-kick routine is well known around the rugby world. Farrell is kicking at 81 per cent for both England and Saracens this year and will be a key player in England’s campaign.
Now with all the statistics out of the way, it is time to discuss tactics.
In World Cups, goal-kicking is undoubtedly one of the most important facets of any campaign.
Considering New Zealand will most likely be playing European sides in their play-offs, points will be much harder to come by as their defences will be much stronger than Southern Hemisphere nations.
This is where kicking will become a big part of the side’s game plan as they look to consistently accumulate points, even if they can’t regularly score five-pointers.
Something else to take into account is the likely outcomes of matches. It is highly unlikely that the All Blacks will find themselves behind the game by a significant amount.
These situations would demand attacking flair to chase down such deficits. As this is not a situation Steve Hansen is likely to find his side in, it is probable that the games will be tough arm-wrestles that will be decided by a few points and fought out aggressively in the final quarter of the match, a time when replacements play pivotal roles.
Hayden Parker’s kicking ability must then be taken into account when selecting the NZ squad.
Another advantage that Parker holds is that by playing for the Sunwolves, he experiences the Japanese conditions on a daily basis.
And as Parker is a fan favourite over in Japan, he may also buy the All Blacks some local fans as they progress through the tournament!
When the replacement fly-half comes on to replace Barrett in the final 20-odd minutes of a World Cup match, it is likely these minutes will be the most pressurised plays of the match.
And this is where Parker’s kicking prowess will be most needed.
There is no reason why Hansen cannot take Barrett, Mo’unga and Parker with him as the All Blacks did in 2015 when Barrett, Colin Slade and Dan Carter all attended.
But it is imperative that Parker is one of the main discussions on the selection table if the All Blacks want to secure their third consecutive Webb Ellis Cup.