Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: All Blacks' rough diamonds repaying selectors

Aaron Cruden in action against Ireland in match three. Photo / Greg Bowker
Aaron Cruden in action against Ireland in match three. Photo / Greg Bowker

Think back to the start of the season. Would Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Sam Cane, Brodie Retallick and Ben Tameifuna have been on many lists as likely All Blacks?

Injuries, their form and an expanded roster brought them into the group and, apart from Tameifuna who did not get any playing minutes, they rewarded themselves and the selectors' insight.

Smith and Retallick were the finds for me, serious talents who sparked crucial areas in the team.

Both left their regions to make their reputations elsewhere.

Smith's gifts were nurtured in the Manawatu region and while the Blues ignored him, then the Hurricanes, he made a huge impact when Jamie Joseph whisked him down to the Highlanders.

Everything about Smith suggests speed. His pass is slippery and accurate and, at its best, gives his receivers precious clicks of time and space to decide on their next move.

He covers the ground like a mini-Said Aouita, scooting across the turf in his jetshoes to deal with most breakdowns, while still having the gas to defend or run an occasional strike himself.

The All Blacks selectors liked the whole package. They saw past the standard Andy Ellis-Piri Weepu axis and decided they wanted a senior man and a fresh talent.

Smith ticked the skills box but they wanted to know if the youngster was robust enough to stand up to the rigours of test rugby and how his game would suit. The 23-year-old had the answers. He showed that in three internationals against Ireland where his work was consistently sharp.

Retallick was someone who reversed the trend and left Crusaders country to make his way in provincial rugby, then Super 15. He grafted his rugby education on to work in Hawkes Bay and Bay of Plenty and was part of the national under-20 side which won the world title last year in Italy.

Those credentials were enough for Dave Rennie and Co and they picked the young lock to make the rise to the Chiefs this season. He kept climbing against most of his lineout opponents, while offering a powerful, tight game the Chiefs wanted from their front five.

Retallick is uncommonly young at 21 for a test lock. However, he has the attitude and size to put himself about in the international skirmishes.

There have been hiccups with some like Isaac Ross, who flitted in and out of the All Black ranks in 2009.

But Retallick has started with more impact, which suggests his career could follow men like Colin Meads, Gary Whetton and Ian Jones, who started at a similar vintage as they carved out their international marks.

- NZ Herald

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Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

The latest commentary and analysis from senior rugby writer Wynne Gray. Wynne has been covering the All Blacks for more than 27 years and has attended more than 230 All Blacks tests live for the Herald.

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