Wynne Gray on sport

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: Forget class here's a team of the moment

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Jared Payne of the Blues. Photo / Getty Images
Jared Payne of the Blues. Photo / Getty Images

Game on tonight. Forget the season's test start against Fiji in a fortnight, let's imagine the All Blacks are playing this evening or, better still, in the middle of the afternoon.

We are picking a form team, not a side which rewards players for long service, what they have shown before in the black jersey or have the trust of the selection panel and all those hoary old tags.

This is a side picked on the form they have shown in the Super 15, 22 men chosen to do battle in black as a reward for their consistent performances across four months unlike another squad which will be unveiled on Sunday.

That group will be very different from this selection.

There are any number of tough choices to be made, such as deciding whether to split up combinations like Sonny Bill Williams and Robbie Fruean, Brad Thorn and Sam Whitelock.

Skipper Richie McCaw sneaks in because he has just played enough footy and has shown pretty solid form during those appearances, while someone like Sitiveni Sivivatu was too quiet too often to make it.

That is the deal. Forget the fact that Mils Muliaina has played 94 tests or that Andrew Hore has notched up 50, they have to be judged on what they have produced.

Start with a clean canvas at the beginning of the Super 15 competition, now work from there.

Pick a side without prejudice, instincts, history or hope.

Fullback will be iced by Isaia Toeava. Until he reinjured his hip, Toeava was going gangbusters for the Blues and, when he keeled over, so did the team. This season Toeava was a revelation at fullback where his direction, pace, kicking and overall play gave the Blues another dimension.

Highlanders' Ben Smith tailed off a touch but his work through the bulk of the Super 15 delivered on the talent the selectors spotted a year or two ago.

His versatility means he can offer in midfield or the wing as well as from the bench. He makes the grade ahead of Muliaina and Cory Jane, who have been quiet, and the injured Israel Dagg.

Give me some gas and I'll show you a wing, former All Blacks selector Earle Kirton used to say. Well Sean Maitland has got some serious speed and has shown a growing surety about his game, holding his position and working on defence.

His sidekick will be Zac Guildford; he of the flapping feet and behaviour issues who has cleaned up his social and playing standards.

He has extreme pace and better game instincts as he showed with his cover tackle to nail Jaque Fourie in the Cape Town semifinal.

Other wings such as Joe Rokocoko and Rene Ranger have been consistent without their regular snap, Hosea Gear and Sivivatu were injured and also middling.

Jared Payne's semifinal work against the Reds was his worst effort of a top-notch season where he showed enough class to have the All Blacks selectors, apparently, thinking very hard about his squad inclusion.

Those with a cynical link would say that is just a ploy to stop him heading for his contract in Ireland - but he did play like Conrad Smith on steroids.

Richard Kahui was very strong in a clutch of appearances where his work was largely restricted to defence, Robbie Fruean has been a potent package without some of the finesse and perhaps surety for test play yet.

New Blues midfielder Ma'a Nonu gets the 12 jersey, sneaking in ahead of the exciting SBW. In a difficult year for the Hurricanes, Nonu stood out for his ability to beat the line, regularly, for his power and his growing ability to connect with his support players.

While this team will have holes picked in it with more fervour than a clutch of vultures hovering over a carcass, no one should dispute Daniel Carter at first receiver. His modest matches are still better than any other five-eighths can offer.

Aaron Cruden is coming to his game and his kicking has been far more certain, Colin Slade hints at a revival and the rest are shooting through.

In picking a bench for this side, having Cruden as backup five-eighths seemed a luxury so in a zany twist of Earle Kirton logic either Toeava or Smith, who have roamed all round the backlines, will be deputy if needed.

The halfback jersey goes to Jimmy Cowan with one proviso: that he tempers his critiques of referees during matches. He has played staunchly, his defence is first rate and his varied kicking game will be well suited to night game conditions at the tournament.

Piri Weepu is coming to his game, Alby Mathewson has slipped while Andrew Ellis has showed out more.

The great shame is that Kahn Fotuali'i has given his allegiance to Samoa; the kid can play and perhaps he might shift north.

Ellis' game has gone to another level this season, the variety and certainty in his play is very noticeable. He is not just a servant for Carter, he makes his own plays, bosses the pack and is playing with renewed authority.

Anyone disputing a Kieran Read, McCaw, Jerome Kaino looseforward troika will be in the minority.

The captain has been on limited rations because of a pesky foot injury but he has quickly slotted into the groove to nudge ahead of the up and comers Matt Todd, Jack Lam and Luke Braid.

Honourable mentions sit with Victor Vito, Fritz Lee and Nasi Manu in the boot of the scrum and Vito still appeals as a World Cup choice.

Adam Thomson and Liam Messam have been the best of the other blindsiders, take your choice. Messam may cover openside a shade more so he gets first crack.

A lineout leaper and a tight lock - the requirements are still the same and Sam Whitelock in minimal appearances and Jarrad Hoeata in a consistent full programme, win the jerseys.

Whitelock has the aerial skills with a neat touch of devil, Hoeata plays with the sting Brad Thorn had every game. Now it is infrequent.

Former All Black Ali Williams has made the strides needed to regain a World Cup place as has Anthony Boric who was the Blues prime lock until injured late.

Tom Donnelly seems to be restricted to lineout production, while James Broadhurst has an edge about him and is on the rise. Owen Franks is a tighthead bull, an ogre round the track, numero uno for the number three uniform while his teammate Wyatt Crockett has made the sort of strides Ellis has at halfback.

Crockett's all-round game has leaped ahead, his scrummaging is tighter and with Tony Woodcock on sick leave, has to be the leading loosehead.

There is some mail Ben Afeaki's introduction to the All Black training camps is a pointer but it seems more likely for next year with both Ben Franks and John Afoa available to deal with both sides of the scrum as benchmen.

Blues captain Keven Mealamu is the hooker after another high quality Super 15, while Corey Flynn has ironed out his lineout throwing foibles, maintained his round the field dynamism and is in the middle of a powerful Crusaders frontrow.

His performances have kept him ahead of Andrew Hore who started slowly but is coming to his game again and will make a World Cup squad which has three hookers.

- NZ Herald

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