Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: First fives get chance to audition for ABs

Lima Sopoaga. Photo / Getty Images
Lima Sopoaga. Photo / Getty Images

It's audition time again, just in case there are more All Black five-eighths dramas.

The theme is almost becoming an expected part of the test schedule after the World Cup dramas of 2011, the blips over the following two seasons and the sabbatical absence of Daniel Carter this year.

Now Aaron Cruden is damaged and while he is expected back on duty from his broken thumb for the June test series with England, there will be some doubt until he is cleared.

In the front row of the backup grid stands Beauden Barrett who brings a more traditional style of play than Cruden with his passing, pace and kicking ability.

If you thought you'd like to watch that style this weekend as a pointer to how it would project into the June test series, then you are out of luck. Barrett and the Hurricanes are parked on a bye with their next outing scheduled against the Blues at the Cake Tin.

Into the vacuum this round is the next level of talent - Lima Sopoaga, Gareth Anscombe and probably Colin Slade ahead of another test recruit, Tom Taylor - as the Crusaders work through their South African expedition.

Slade has 11 tests on his resume and knows what it takes to deal with that international intensity if his body co-operates. Jaw, shoulder, ankle and muscle injuries have bitten into his time and confidence.

He has been able to nudge ahead of Taylor and Tyler Bleyendaal for the No10 jersey with the Crusaders although no one, other than Ryan Crotty in the backline, has brought a consistently strong level of performance so far.

Slade has a touch more pace than the other two and the staff may feel his decisions produce more for a backline which has not brought much clout so far.

A fit-again Sopoaga has been a boon for the Highlanders. He is a solid young man with a strong temperament, plenty of speed and an attacking philosophy, who has also been delivering with his goalkicking.

Anscombe will deliver the intrigue after being an understudy to Cruden for two seasons. He has since had surgery on both shoulders and has shown strong form in his comeback at fullback. That role gives him time and space to choose his options. If he moves to the frontline, he is sure to get advice from coach Wayne Smith and onfield assistance from Andrew Horrell and the Chiefs loose forwards.

- NZ Herald

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