Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Will Big Ben fit in to new hooking role?

While Tameifuna is making the headlines right now for his extraordinary girth and drink driving escapade, this is not a player the All Blacks are ready to give up on. Photo / Getty Images
While Tameifuna is making the headlines right now for his extraordinary girth and drink driving escapade, this is not a player the All Blacks are ready to give up on. Photo / Getty Images

It has not been an easy business finding a younger hooker to take over from the ageing Keven Mealamu and Andrew Hore and the All Blacks have a number of works in progress.

Dane Coles is the latest to be given his chance to advance his case and try to convince he really can play at this level. Hika Elliot has been tried with mixed results. They are the best of the bunch at the moment but neither appear destined to be as durable and effective as the two incumbent veterans.

There is also a younger wave hoping to emerge in the next 12-18 months - Ben Funnell and Codie Taylor at the Crusaders and Quentin MacDonald at the Blues. But maybe there is a left-field option that the All Blacks have their eye on: an unexpected solution to a problem that is perhaps bigger than anyone is letting on. Mealamu's calf has been an issue all year - a sign of the wear and tear, a warning that he might not be able to push on past next season. Hore is 34, still playing well, still feeling good but, at 34, he can't take anything for granted.

The answer to this riddle may be Ben Tameifuna - the giant Chiefs tighthead prop currently troubling the scales at 150kg and dealing with a number of personal issues. Madness? Maybe. But there is a fine line between lunacy and genius and, while Tameifuna is making the headlines right now for his extraordinary girth and drink driving escapade, this is not a player the All Blacks are ready to give up on.

"There is no doubt he is a player of some ability hence why we selected him," says All Black coach Steve Hansen. "That and the fact Charlie (Faumuina) wasn't available. Ben's issue is his fitness, his discipline to be a professional athlete.

"I know the Chiefs are working on a plan around that and I know that Ben wants to - so, if Ben is genuine, he'll be given all the support he needs to achieve that. Once he gets fit then we know he's going to be a pretty tidy footballer."

Tameifuna can scrummage; he can run; he has great hands, great skills and huge courage as he showed this year when he battled through his rookie Super Rugby campaign carrying 15kg too many.

They'd back him to nail the specialist skills of hooker and the prospect of that is fascinating: imagine the scrummaging and destructive power of a front-row that included Owen Franks, Tameifuna and Tony Woodcock?

The All Blacks feel Tameifuna could make the transition but hinges on one thing: Tameifuna needs to take on board the need to improve his diet, follow a conditioning programme and adhere to a professional regime that will take him to full potential.

"To play hooker, he is going to have to get fit," says Hansen. "Once he gets fit, then we can look at all sorts of things. That is an option going forward but we have to see how he goes."

- Herald on Sunday

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