Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Piutau presses claims amid surfeit of talented outside backs

Injuries are supposedly a curse. The All Blacks selectors might see them as a blessing next year as they try to shoe-horn an extraordinary number of talented outside backs into their match day squad.

The talk will be of choice being a good problem to have. But there will be times when all of Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Cory Jane, Charles Piutau, Julian Savea and Israel Dagg are fit, that it might be a decidedly taxing and stressful business making the right selection.

Piutau is the most intriguing within that group. He's developed faster than anyone expected and made himself a problem.

On this tour, he's been too good to leave out. He's earned his place through solid basics and outrageous extras. But he's also been fortunate that Jane's lack of football has counted so heavily against him.

It may look like the pecking order has changed - that Piutau has leap-frogged Jane - but 2013 has been a write-off for the veteran.

Next year should be different. Jane may well be back to his best - and in 2012 when he was at his peak, he was the best wing in world rugby.

Ben Smith probably held that mantle this year until his shift to centre and Savea has been consistent to the point where he could just about be considered world class.

So what chance Piutau holding his own in that sort of company? The 21-year-old will surely return to his watch and learn brief and await an injury or a soft opponent?

Maybe not. The quietly spoken Piutau is everything the selectors want in a wing. He's a regular fullback so brave and accurate under the high ball. He's got a huge boot, tackles hard, beats the first defender, knows where the touchline is and he keeps his ears and eyes open off the field.

It's his willingness to learn and work hard that makes him so intriguing because his room for growth may be the greatest of all the wings in the squad.

"He's really handled a variety of different things," says assistant coach Ian Foster of Piutau. "We have seen from the start a very level-headed young man who has sat in the environment and picked things up and done his job so that when he has got on the park he's very quickly performed at a very good level.

"He's got a few things he has to work on and some of those came out of the last game [England] ...

"He can still work on his kicking game and on his kick chase and on his roles at the end of it. Again we are talking about sandpaper and small improvements."

The perception of him as the long shot may not be quite right. There will be some tough selection challenges in 2014 but Piutau may, despite the crush of talent, be a relatively easy choice in the end.


- NZ Herald

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