Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Saili's mission - run hard, fast and break the line

Right now, it's a stretch to see Francis Saili as the next Ma'a Nonu. But give it time and the comparisons may become obvious.

All Black coach Steve Hansen hopes that process will begin tomorrow when Saili makes a test debut not everyone is sure he's ready to make.

What convinces Hansen is his clarity from what he wants from his No12s. To his mind, second-receiver is some Fijian-Aussie bloke who plays league. The All Blacks have a non-complicated plan in mind for their second-fives - run straight, run hard, attack the inside shoulder and get over the gainline. That's been the brief for Nonu and Sonny Bill Williams during Hansen's reign and that will be the brief for Saili.

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There's no desire to see Saili over-think things. They don't want him to throw his long cut-out passes; they don't want him to feel he needs to help Daniel Carter too much with the tactical direction and they don't want Saili to feel he needs to show all his tricks during the 80 minutes.

What they do want is for him to use his fast feet, his acceleration and power to attack space and break the line. If that's Saili's sole contribution tomorrow - Hansen and his fellow coaches won't complain.

"He has got a skill-set that is wide-ranging," says Hansen of Saili. "He can kick with his left foot, he has got a tonne of pace and he's a good defender. His passing game is good. It is just a matter of him working through the risk and rewards of him using those skills at the right time."

Where there is nervousness in regard to Saili is in his decision-making after he clatters into space. He showed with the Blues that he can be both electric and eclectic in what he does once he's broken the line. He has a full range of tricks which burdens with him choice. He's prone to throwing long passes, possibly just to show he can do it, and he's been guilty of kicking the ball away, again possibly motivated by a desire to showcase his portfolio.

That was much the same with Nonu at the same age. Breaking the line was never a problem for Nonu: it's what got him noticed as as 21-year-old back in 2003. It took, though, five years before he lost the erratic decision-making and wild execution after he'd opened the defence.

Like Saili, Nonu was naturally drawn to risk, but constant reinforcement of the same simple messages by the All Black coaches, longevity in the game, natural maturation and sporadic periods of non-selection helped Nonu develop into the player he has become.
It is logical to assume if Saili begins his test career showing many of the same traits, skills and characteristics that Nonu did at the same age, then the youngster can be coached into a similar finished product.

At 1.80m and 99kg, Saili is even a physical replica. He has the required physicality to handle the extreme demands of the role - to smash into contact, with or without the ball, and retain forward momentum.

Only 22, it's likely he'll be able to add another 5kg to his frame and develop an element of comfort about his ability to attack the line.

It's no wonder, then, that his midfield partner, Conrad Smith, who is better placed than anyone to make comparisons, feels he'll be playing alongside a young Nonu.

"For sure," he said asked if he could see resemblances. "Especially the skill-sets - the way he [Saili] can break a line, but also his passing and his kicking game. It's pretty impressive.

"There will be a lot of learning for him in terms of option-taking. But he and a young Ma'a Nonu are very similar."

No 12 must-haves

Generics

• Speed, size [100kg-plus] and explosive power.

• Big defence - both technical execution and tactical reading.

• Excellent handling - both short and long passing.

• Clarity in decision-making.

Bonus features

• Long and short kicking game.

All Black No 12 job description

• Run hard, run straight - cross the gainline.

• Break the line and a) offload or b) set up for recycle.

• Win all collisions.

- NZ Herald

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