Wynne Gray 's Opinion

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: Piri's gone but we're set to carry on

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TJ Perenara, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Smith have the speed and youth All Blacks selectors are looking for in a halfback. Photos / Brett Phibbs, Getty Images
TJ Perenara, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Smith have the speed and youth All Blacks selectors are looking for in a halfback. Photos / Brett Phibbs, Getty Images

As we salute the departing Piri Weepu, appreciation should be growing that Aaron Smith was ready to take over as All Black halfback.

He was sharp, had a pass to rival the tungsten-wrist delivery of Graeme Bachop, was getting on top of his kicking game, his tactical diversity and starting to boss the forwards. Speed was his main weapon.

Smith was tough too, able to take the knocks and smart enough to avoid them if he was going to perform his primary role of clearing rucks and pinpointing his targets.

When he eased past the experienced shadow of Jimmy Cowan at the Highlanders, Smith flowed into the grateful gaze of the new All Black panel.

Weepu, Cowan and Andy Ellis were the World Cup triumvirate but a change of selector-coaches brought an altered vision for the game with the skills and speed of the halfback a foundation for the plans.

It was a bold and decisive choice, which startled a fair chunk of the nation's rugby watchers.

Not only did the selectors identify Smith but they promoted him to start ahead of Weepu in the three-test series with Ireland. His form was infectious and the selectors persevered with Smith, starting him in all but two of the 14 tests that year.

He put the buzz back in the All Black business. Outside him, Daniel Carter and Aaron Cruden could stand flat and a little wider where they got time on the ball to stress defences even further.

Only rarely did they have to stretch, stoop or reach for passes from the livewire.

Weepu battled on in Smith's wake as first, Tawera Kerr-Barlow then TJ Perenara pitched up for some combat.

They've gone past Weepu who has farewelled his fans and headed for rugby in the UK where long seasons and slower grounds encourage a game based more on forwards and attrition than frantic adventure.

Weepu did not have the speed to fit the All Black selectors' uptempo blueprint beyond his 71 tests but he has the guile and frame to deliver for London Welsh.

His All Black replacements have not yet been convincing and have not put any great heat on Smith.

Kerr-Barlow is a competitive beast in the best tradition of halfback scrappers who guards the channels around the breakdown with all the physical clout of a loose forward. His pass is functional and his play suits the attritional demands of wet-weather footy.

Perenara is an impressive athlete but needs to calm down with his entreaties to referees and con-centrate more on getting better precision into the basics of passing, kicking and balancing his decisions. Neither he nor Kerr-Barlow control games with a balance of tactics.

Their advantage is their youth (Perenara is 22, Kerr-Barlow 23), their fitness and their ability to adapt. Both are a work in progress. Although Ellis remains a fallback option, it is hard to see the selectors going back to the future. They ignored that option with hooker Corey Flynn and it's unlikely they would do that with Ellis unless there were multiple injury defections.

The options at halfback do not end there anyway. The Chiefs and Counties Manukau have another good No9 in Augustine Pulu who brings a strong game while Willi Heinz also gets plenty of acclaim down in Crusaders country. And who knows who might emerge from the ITM Cup with the sort of sizzle Smith provided when he leaped into our national consciousness.

- NZ Herald

Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

NZ Herald senior rugby writer Wynne Gray has been covering the All Blacks for almost 25 years and has attended more than 230 All Blacks tests live for the Herald.

Read more by Wynne Gray

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