Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Blindside hopefuls short of six appeal

Somewhere in the background a picture is forming about how the All Blacks will look in 2015. There is clarity about several, if not most positions, but in the key role of blindside, it's hazy.

There are plenty of contenders: Liam Messam, Victor Vito, Steven Luatua are all in the squad, Brad Shields is desperately close and there is the outside chance of Jerome Kaino riding into town later this year.

But All Black coach Steve Hansen might feel a little like the Ancient Mariner ... cursing perhaps that there is "water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink".

None of the current options quite fits the bill. Messam is not quite the lineout player they need and there is an awareness that he has never quite delivered the same intensity and accuracy as he did a year ago in the third test against Ireland.

Vito has the athleticism and speed, looks every inch the part right up until the crunch: three years into his test career and everyone is still waiting for him to display the relentless physicality that is required.

Luatua is the perfect athlete - has the size, agility, mobility and work-rate. He's a long way off imposing himself, though. That appetite for destruction: that hunger to hit people and make sure they stay down, that's not there yet.

Ideally, Hansen would like to take bits of each and create the perfect blindside - a position that is a vital part of the machinery as evidenced at the last World Cup when Thierry Dusautoir and Kaino not only drove their respective sides into the final, they were shortlisted as IRB Player of the year with the former winning.

The reality though for Hansen is that tonight Messam will be sent into battle with non-ambiguous instructions to rekindle that intensity he showed in Hamilton last year to save his All Black career. Recalled from the wilderness having missed the initial squad, Messam delivered an unforgettably good 80 minutes in the 60-0 rout of Ireland.

"I remember it," he says wistfully. "It was my home pitch and I was given an opportunity. I thought that maybe my All Black career was over when I missed out on the wider training group. So I just wanted to go out there and rip into it. I'm still here today [because of that performance] ..."

In the 12 months since Messam's seminal performance, he's become reliable rather than spectacular. He's reshaped his game - become tighter, harder and more comfortable with his enforcement portfolio.

He's rarely sighted in the wild yonder as he too often used to be and the best compliment that can be paid is that he now plays as everyone expects a No 6 to play.

"My game definitely had to change especially with Dave Rennie, Smithie [Wayne Smith] and Tom Coventry coming into the Chiefs.

"They had a whole different game they wanted to play - one that suits the All Blacks as well. Getting stuck into the hard stuff is something I love to do as well now.

"It comes with game time and maturity - picking the right times. The more you play, the more you understand there is no point playing as if your head has been cut off, trying to do it for 80 minutes.

"You have to pick the right times when to enforce yourself. I'm starting to get there. I'm not there yet but I am heading in the right direction."

The All Black coaches would agree - Messam is heading in the right direction. But whether he is getting there fast enough; whether he is ever going to arrive at the destination at all and whether he'll still be there by 2015 if he does - these are questions they are reluctant to answer.

They are even less certain again in regard to Vito. If the series is tied up tonight, it's probable that Vito will start in New Plymouth regardless of how Messam plays. The same instructions have been given to Vito for the past 18 months - he needs to be more dominant, more intense, more willing to run over the top of people rather than around them.

There needs to be some more venom in his defence and a general sense emanating from him that he's a player to whom opponents should give a wide berth.

Patience is wearing a little thin and if there isn't obvious progress when he next plays, then Vito may not be given another chance.

The presence of Luatua in the squad should act as an incentive for Vito as it's surely apparent to everyone that the star of the Blues revival this year is a supreme talent. At 1.95m and 114kg there is the potential for him to be cataclysmic in the collisions and invaluable at the lineout.

The next 18 months are about converting that potential and like all "special projects" there are few guarantees of success.

Steven Luatua

Height: 1.95m
Weight: 114kg
Caps: 0
Needs to: Find his feet at test level and learn the art of enforcement when he does

Liam Messam

Height: 1.88m
Weight: 107kg
Caps: 21
Needs to: Deliver high impact, high intensity performances every time he plays.

Victor Vito

Height: 1.92m
Weight: 112kg
Caps: 20
Needs to: Find some mongrel. Unleash hell.

- NZ Herald

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