Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Nearly there...pair fight to prove they're ready for those top spots

Liam Messam. Photo / Getty Images
Liam Messam. Photo / Getty Images

For different reasons Liam Messam and Beauden Barrett were pent-up bundles of frustration yesterday.

Messam is under pressure to hold his place in the starting team; Barrett is desperate to break in and Dunedin is looking likely to be the place where both can achieve their goals.

After being one of the unsung heroes of 2013, Messam gently eased his way into 2014 with a performance that was so-so - functional without getting much beyond that.

A gentle loosener like that wouldn't usually put him under the spotlight, but Jerome Kaino was outstanding at No 8 which is not his natural home.

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Kaino was standing in for Kieran Read, and when the world's best player is declared fit, the selectors are going to need a compelling case to keep Messam at No 6. Kaino has already made one.

"It was a tough battle which it always is in test football," Messam said yesterday of the opening test.

"They are big physical men and I thought Jerome's first game back in the All Black jumper ... he was sensational. He was physical. And Richie [McCaw] was Richie and we have to make sure that we keep developing as a trio."

Messam didn't offer a critique of his own performance. He's been around for long enough to know that actions always speak louder than words and a redemptive effort in Dunedin is the best way to respond.

Barrett's predicament is that little bit harder as he can't quite dictate his fate the way Messam can.

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The expectation is that Aaron Cruden will start at first-five again, leaving Barrett to state his case from the bench from where he might be brought in at fullback, as he was in Auckland.

As a team man he'll do what is asked of him without complaint, but he freely admits he'd love to be given that elusive crack at starting a test wearing No 10.

"I have had a whole season at the Hurricanes in the No 10 jersey," he said. "It would be good to carry that form on in the black jersey but they don't give those away too easily and I have to earn it.

"I appreciate any time I can get and if I am No 2 at the moment [second choice first-five] then I am No 2 and I have got to earn that starting position. If it means coming off the bench, I just have to make that impact and play well if I get that time."

A little like Messam, Barrett didn't nail the performance he was after at Eden Park. He had the better part of 30 minutes to state his case from fullback, but the game didn't flow his way and when it did, he was, like his backline peers, a touch out with his timing.

A guaranteed dry ball and perfect conditions on Saturday night will give Barrett and Messam the confidence they need to eliminate the errors and finish test two with stronger claims to the jerseys they want in the final match.

- NZ Herald

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