Rugby: Hey Steve, here's what we'd do

By Gregor Paul, Patrick McKendry, Wynne Gray, Ian Jones

The Super 15 is arguably providing as many headaches as answers for All Blacks head coach and selector Steve Hansen. The Herald rugby desk has been charged with putting themselves in Hansen's shoes and coming up with answers to some of the some of the season's curliest questions.

Wynne Gray - New Zealand Herald senior rugby writer
Patrick McKendry - APNZ rugby reporter
Gregor Paul - Herald on Sunday rugby writer
Ian Jones - Former All Black and NZ Herald columnist

1. Assuming you give the out-of-form Aaron Smith some leeway, do you start him or have him coming off the bench behind Weepu?

Wynne Gray
Weepu starts. A year ago he was off the pace and Smith deserved to wear the No9 jersey. Now the roles have been reversed. Weepu has been asked to lead an inexperienced Blues backline and show he still has his eyes on the next World Cup. He has nailed both after turning up in good shape and showing the Blues why he has been so valued by the All Blacks.

Patrick McKendry
I would pick Aaron Smith in my squad, but only to boost his confidence after a horror start with the Highlanders.

He's better than that, though, as he showed last year with the All Blacks. Piri Weepu deserves the starting role, no question.

Gregor Paul
The All Black game-plan will be built on quick ruck ball and wide attacks. Aaron Smith still has the best skill-set to fulfil the role. He looks like he's taking on too much at the Highlanders whereas with the All Blacks he'll have it drummed in that he doesn't need to be the tactical director. Weepu, while he hates this fact, remains one of the best impact players in the business: he reads the game superbly from the bench and is genuine added value when he enters the fray.

Ian Jones
I would start with Aaron Smith and trust in the skills and attitude he showed for us last year. A player of his class doesn't lose his skill-set overnight and in the All Black environment, playing the game at the pace they intend, he will find his form very quickly.

2.Do you cut the underperforming Highlander veterans - most notably Ma'a Nonu and Tony Woodcock, and to a lesser degree Hosea Gear - some slack because they've done it for you in the past?

Wynne Gray
They will be picked because they remain the best in their test field but should get a serious inquisition about their motivation and form in next month's national training camp. Nonu and Woodcock have been quality performers through their test careers while Gear, apart from last week's glitches, has been one of the better performers in a dud outfit. Pick them and put the acid on them.

Patrick McKendry
Yes, but only because Nonu and Woodcock have been injured. Both have been extremely disappointing, especially Woodcock, who is showing all of his 32 years. The clock is ticking on him. Nonu has been off his game since the start but rarely misfires for the All Blacks. Hosea Gear has been excellent apart from last weekend against the Brumbies.

Gregor Paul
Certainly Nonu gets an exemption. Erratic and unconvincing Super 15 form is the norm from him. For the last three years he's been consistently world-class for the All Blacks after being consistently Third World for his franchise. There is no obvious or credible alternative. Woodcock's experience earns him a squad place, but there is daylight between him and Ben Franks in terms of form. Gear has actually played well in a losing team and with Cory Jane unavailable and Richard Kahui and Rene Ranger leaving, Gear is an important part of the picture.

Ian Jones
History and experience count for plenty in the black jersey but the tough call is going to have to be made on Tony Woodcock. What's holding him back? Injury or motivation. Ma'a Nonu I would cut some slack because he is special outside Dan Carter and inside Conrad Smith. Hosea is a contender. Work rate, desire, commitment have all been high.

3.There's a queue of players aspiring to be All Blacks No6 - Brad Shields, Steven Luatua, Liam Messam and Victor Vito. In what order do you rate their test readiness now?

Wynne Gray
Vito has been used more at No8 when he has been fit and he looks the most comprehensive package. Luatua has made great advances and offers linking options with his athleticism, improving defence and lineout ability to suggest he is close to an investment. Messam remains a workaholic blindsider while Shields is an aggressive, creative flanker of great promise.

Patrick McKendry
Liam Messam, Victor Vito, Steven Luatua, Brad Shields. Of those four I would expect to see Luatua playing blindside flanker for the All Blacks next year. Messam hasn't done enough to convince me he is a test No6, nor has Vito. Shields, yet to play for the ABs but in the frame last year, has been overtaken by Luatua.

Gregor Paul
Vito and Messam are still the best options to take on the French and play on the bulk of the Rugby Championship. They are one and two - the order fluid. Luatua, though, would benefit from being in the squad and by the end-of-year tour, may have advanced ahead of one of the established duo.

Ian Jones
Liam Messam is the incumbent and with 20 tests under his belt offers experience and leadership so is my number one. Steven Luatua is next in line. The man is playing with such confidence, I could easily see that transferred to the international stage. Brad Shields is showing good consistency which he needs to continue and Victor Vito is not playing six at the moment which takes him out of the mix.

4.Do you think that will still be the case in 2015, especially if Jerome Kaino comes back into the frame?

Wynne Gray
Bring me the crystal ball for that one. If he comes back is he going to oust Luatua from the No6 jersey in the Blues or might he be asked to fill some vacancy at the Highlanders or Crusaders? When Kaino left he was at the top of his prowess. Injury took him out last year then he went to Japan. If he returns, Kaino will have to convince us he still has those vital instincts of 2011.

Patrick McKendry
Having just turned 30, Kaino is still relatively young, but if 22-year-old Luatua keeps improving like he should then he would be my No1 blindside flanker.

Gregor Paul
By 2015 Luatua is likely to be No1 and Shields possibly two. Vito's long-term future is at No8 and Messam may become a great emergency option. Kaino will be the great unknown. Can he rediscover the venom, the drive, the physicality that made him world class in 2010 and 2011?

Ian Jones
I would make no plans for Jerome Kaino to be a part of the 2015 RWC and instead concentrate on the players we have here. To be part of the 2015 All Blacks you would need to show a full commitment to New Zealand rugby from 2014 on. My advice would be: become the incumbent during that season and you are off to the World Cup.

5.Who's your next test-ready No.12?

Wynne Gray
If Nonu is fit, Francis Saili might be the best understudy. He has great feet, is tough in contact and brings some spark to his work. Tamati Ellison has not been seen because of his shoulder but will command interest if he recovers. Richard Kahui can fill in until he leaves while Rene Ranger would be a wildcard but with the grunt to emulate Nonu.

Patrick McKendry
Ryan Crotty has impressed me at the Crusaders and Phil Burleigh has had his moments at the Highlanders. Chiefs midfielder Charlie Ngatai can play there too. But it's Crotty for me - an intelligent player who still has improvement in him.

Gregor Paul
Short-term it has to be Richard Kahui, but he's available until only late August. Tamati Ellison is unlikely to be match fit by then. Daniel Carter could move out one berth but that's a waste because he needs to be controlling things from No10. Tom Taylor is the best emerging prospect.

Ian Jones
Tom Taylor has had a taste and I like his knowledge of the game, heritage to the jersey and play-making skills that he would bring to the AB game. Ben Smith is another quality player who would work well with Conrad Smith. Tim Bateman and Ryan Crotty are the other options.

6.Julian Savea is playing on one wing, who starts the first test against France on the other? If it's Richard Kahui, what's your long-term plan behind him?

Wynne Gray
It is Kahui so when he skips away, the versatile Ben Smith might be pressed into work in much the way the injured Cory Jane started. Smith has all the skills to handle the role. One to keep an eye on is Frank Halai. He is very raw at this level but he is 25 and responding strongly to some intense personal tuition from John Kirwan.

Patrick McKendry
I'd go for Gear who has been trying his heart out at the end of a dysfunctional backline. He also turned down an offer to play in Japan; Kahui is taking one. Long-term it's hard to go past Frank Halai.

Gregor Paul
Cory Jane is a player with potential to still be world class by 2015 and he is integral to the long-term vision. But there is potential to consider 'special projects'. Frank Halai has the frame to be deadly. More radical again would be 18-year-old Tevita Li, the former Massey High and NZ Schools wing who may show up on the international sevens circuit soon and become an instant star.

Ian Jones
Richard Kahui is still contracted to New Zealand and I have no problems picking him and concentrating on the here and now. Cory Jane is still to come back from injury and will be part of the team if he can regain his fitness. Others will emerge. It's about showing consistency and improvement each year.

7. Imagine a world without war. Now imagine a world without Hore... and Mealamu. Rate your next tier of hookers, in order?

Wynne Gray
Corey Flynn is young by their standards, Codie Taylor is a burly, skilled comer, Dane Coles and Hika Elliot have tasted international rugby and can back up.

Patrick McKendry
Rhys Marshall (Chiefs), Codie Taylor (Crusaders), Ben Funnell (Crusaders).

Gregor Paul
Dane Coles is the next option. He did enough in Europe last year to merit further selection. After him, it's time to think longer term. Rhys Marshall at the Chiefs is performing well beyond expectation and Liam Coltman at the Highlanders has energy and an abrasive edge that excites. The option of converting Ben Tameifuna is not ridiculous, but he needs to get fitter.

Ian Jones
A lot will depend on the make-up of the front row and the need or not for experience. Corey Flynn would offer that and is having a solid season. Dane Coles suits the All Black game plan and will be considered. James Parson and Rhys Marshall are others who if they continue their form will be in the mix.

- NZ Herald

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