Gregor Paul on rugby
Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Four All Blacks on the verge of greatness


There are four players in the current All Black side who have the ability to tread the path all the way to that special place where they can be considered the very best ever produced by New Zealand in their position.

Comparisons, some argue are fruitless given the speed rugby evolves and the vast difference between the professional and amateur eras. Hardly - ignore anyone who says that - rugby folk need the debate, the endless hours of arguments and counter arguments.

The four in question are: Israel Dagg, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock. Fate, being so cruel and fickle could rob them of everything at any time, but if they avoid injury, stay off the booze, look after themselves and continue on their current development curves, these four could be extraordinarily good players.

Dagg has a way of making his presence felt. He comes alive on the big stage and even he doesn't really know how he finds the space. We can marvel at the way he hops and dances past defenders and uses his strength to beat them off whenever they do get close, but what impresses most about his career to date his consistency on defence.

He mops up high balls and he can kick the ball a country mile.

Give him time and he could surpass John Gallagher. Give him more time and he could even produce more magic than Christian Cullen.

Smith's been a revelation all season but it became apparent he was something extra special when he threw a 40 metre pass in Sydney that whizzed into Dan Carter's hands.

His running game at Eden Park marked him as a player who can do it all and while part of his attraction is that he's the first halfback in an age to actually play like a halfback, he is beginning to look impossibly good. It's early but there is greatness in this young man.

Whitelock is more for the purists - a player that those who properly get rugby best understand. His aerial skills are immaculate; he puts a bit of grunt into the scrum; gets around like a loose forward but hits things like he's a lock. He's even prepared to be a bit nasty these days and it makes it hard to remember he's only 23. Give him another three years and he'll be fearsome.

Read is the one closest to his summit and never ceases to impress with his work-rate, accuracy, impact and innovation. No one hits a short pass with more venom or better angles: he tackles like a Samoan - and there can be no greater compliment than that - and if he's made a mistake in the last two years, no one really noticed.

Zinzan Brooke and Buck Shelford are among the best All Blacks ever produced but as crazy as it is, Read could in time become a better No 8 than both of them. In fact, he might already be there.

- Herald on Sunday

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