Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Improving Luatua set to muscle his way in

Blindside is determined to make presence felt if given a start against Ireland in Dublin.

Steven Luatua certainly isn't confused about what his key focus will be on Monday (NZT). The 22-year-old blindside - who is expected to start against Ireland in place of Liam Messam - wants to impose himself physically: he wants for there to be no ambiguity as to whether he dominated the collisions or not.

That he's grasped this seemingly simple objective is important. The failure to get to grips with the core requirements of the role was the downfall of Victor Vito. It was also, for two, maybe even three seasons, something Jerome Kaino struggled with and it's only this year that Messam has delivered the consistency the selectors have sought.

So Luatua, mentally at least, gets what is being asked of him in relation to the big picture.

But how does he see the detail? What will he need to do against Ireland to fulfil the job description?

"If I can be physical for the whole 80 minutes then I will walk away happy," he says. "Ireland are a tough side and I have to be able to cope. I guess you have to have presence. When you walk off the field you have to believe that the opposition have felt your presence. That you have been present at the contact both defence and attack and you walk off feeling you have dominated the game. That's how I measure my game.

"If I am getting some feedback from the boys about how I have shown my presence then you know it has been a good day at the office."

That presence to which Luatua aspires was noticeable in his 20-minute cameo against England. The intensity of that game was major and Luatua made an impact when he came on. He drove the first defender back with his ball carrying, which allowed the All Blacks to own the critical space a metre past the tackled ball. Those inches are important and an All Black No6 is expected to collect them: over an 80-minute game they build up and help create momentum and opportunity.

It's not an easy business in the uber-physical carnage of the current game for one man, especially one so young, to be able to emerge as obviously more physical and imposing than those around him.

But despite his age and lack of experience, the All Blacks want to see precisely that from Luatua should he be picked. Head coach Steve Hansen has observed the slow development of Kaino and Messam and the struggles of Vito. He knows the theory that it takes time for a blindside to mature and learn the art of imposing himself.

But this All Black side is all about setting new standards, proving old theories wrong and re-inventing what is possible, which is why Hansen is trying to fast-track Luatua's progress.

It is apparent they have a stunning athlete and very good rugby player in Luatua, but they had that with Vito and for a long period - that was also true of Kaino and Messam.

Hansen wants to speed up that conversion and by Monday morning, to have seen Luatua take a major step towards being both a stunning athlete and stunning rugby player.

The hardest part of the transition is adopting the right mindset. Being intimidating is as much a mental challenge as it is physical. To some, it comes easily: men like Brad Thorn are naturally inclined to put themselves about. Kaino was always tough and explosive, his only flaw in his early days was work-rate and consistency.

Luatua has had to work a bit harder on his attitude and mindset. His game is less focused on the bruising and more about the holistic package: he is a damaging ball carrier in the wider reaches and an effortless link man.

It's been a constant work-on convincing himself he can be destructive in the tight exchanges. But he reckons he's getting there and his appearance at Twickenham was among his best this season.

"It is something I have learned over these past couple of months," he says of adopting the right mental state. "I talked about being dominant before but I didn't really know what dominance meant. Obviously I thought it meant big tackles and that kind of stuff. I think I walked off pretty happy against England. I thought I was present - made a few tackles, hit rucks although I didn't carry as much."

- NZ Herald

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