Canon Rugby in Focus: Jim Kayes makes the case for two fringe All Black midfielders to be picked ahead of Sonny Bill Williams.
Braydon Ennor has to go to the Rugby World Cup. So too Ngani Laumape.
And I’d toss Sevu Reece in there too, as unpalatable as that may be for those who believe his off-field behaviour should rule him out. More on that soon.
Laumape has played 10 tests, starting half of them, and is, alongside Ryan Crotty, the form New Zealand second five. Those two, plus Anton Lienert-Brown (for me, a centre) and Jack Goodhue should be the four midfielders taken to Japan.
It’s unlikely to happen as I reckon Steve Hansen will pick Sonny Bill Williams if he can get fit, because he knows so well the impact Williams can bring off the bench.
And that won’t weaken the All Blacks midfield stocks because (his haters hate this) Williams is a proven winner, but I do question his durability.
Williams’ nickname with some at the Crusaders was ‘chalky’ because, like a stick of chalk, he broke easily. He does seem to be injured often and increasingly so as the years of professional sport catch up on him.
But it must be accepted that when Williams is fit, he is one heck of a player.
So too, though, is Laumape. With his pace, strong running and step he has beaten 62 defenders, second only in Super Rugby to the Reds’ Samu Kerevi.
Just as Ma’a Nonu was earlier in his career, Laumape has been pigeon-holed as a crash-and-bash player, but it was unfair to Nonu and it’s wrong now, too.
Think back to the test against Japan last year. Laumape put Dane Coles in for a try with a gem of a cut-out pass and created tries for himself and George Bridge with deft kicks.
It’s worth noting Hurricanes wings Ben Lam and Wes Goosen have scored 15 tries outside Laumape this year.
And the 24-year-old is durable, something that can’t be said of Williams or the concussion-prone Crotty, though he showed again in the Crusaders rampant win against the Rebels on the weekend what a wonderful player he is.
The case for picking Ennor is remarkably simple. He scores tries and can play both wings and centre. Surely that’s a combination that sees him picked!
The case of Reece is simple from a rugby perspective too, but much trickier when the public relations issues are factored in.
Reece was born in Fiji and came to New Zealand at 16 on a rugby scholarship to Hamilton Boys High School (sorry, it’s called a Pasifika Scholarship on the odd chance it wasn’t his rugby prowess that got him to Hamilton).
But last year Reece was charged with assaulting a woman after an incident with his partner. He was discharged without conviction, fined $750 and suspended for a game in the Mitre 10 Cup.
A contract to play in Ireland was ripped up and he was eventually thrown a lifeline by the Crusaders, where he has been in sensational form on the right wing.
That’s the wing Ben Smith could play at the World Cup with Jordie Barrett at fullback, but Reece might be causing a rethink.
He leads Super Rugby with 13 tries, two more than Laumape, while Ennor has 10. And his 34 clean breaks are eight more than the next best – Ennor again, with 26.
Others with worse rap sheets than Reece have played for the All Blacks, but his selection will still cause alarm, dismay and even disgust for some.
Hansen will be asked how Reece fits in with his “better people make better All Blacks” philosophy (which clearly didn’t include Andrew Hore) and will likely answer that everyone makes mistakes, it’s what we do after the mistake that matters.
Hansen knows players like Reece win games. They make something out of nothing and often turn bad play into tries as he did when a botched kick fell in his hands and saw him score against the Rebels on Saturday.
With 31 players allowed in World Cup squads, Hansen has a surplus of talent to squeeze into the ranks.
Does he take eight or nine locks and loose forwards? And in that mix are there four locks with Scott Barrett covering blindside, or three locks and possibly six loose forwards?
Patrick Tuipulotu will be hoping it’s four locks, just as some of the fringe loosies will be hoping six of them are picked.
With Damian McKenzie’s injury ruling him out, I reckon they will take three halfbacks and two first fives (all predictable, though personally I’d pick Brad Weber).
So in a split of 17 forwards (five props, three hookers, four locks and five loose forwards) and 14 backs, there is room for four midfielders and five outside backs.
Smith, Barrett and Rieko Ioane pick themselves, but what of George Bridge (used mainly by the Crusaders on Ioane’s left wing), Waisake Naholo, Ennor, Reece, the in-form David Havili and possibly Malani Nanai?
Naholo has a history with Hansen, but he was far from impressed with the right wing’s form on last year’s November tour.
And, remember, whoever is picked is likely to play just one pool game and compete for the bench in the other matches with Smith, Barrett and Ioane the top trio.
It’s why Ennor, with his versatility, should be picked. At the very least he, Reece and Laumape will be impossible to ignore when the selectors discuss their squad – and very tough to leave out when they name it.
The views of the author are not necessarily endorsed by Canon.