Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Ngatai's absence proves to be headache for selectors

Charlie Ngatai's lingering concussion symptoms mean he has not been able to display his midfield skills to the All Blacks selectors in the test series against Wales. Photo / NZME.
Charlie Ngatai's lingering concussion symptoms mean he has not been able to display his midfield skills to the All Blacks selectors in the test series against Wales. Photo / NZME.

If there is one regret for the All Blacks from this June series, it is that they have been denied the opportunity to see Charlie Ngatai in action.

Had fate not cruelly intervened, Ngatai could have finished the series against Wales having made the distinct impression that he is the pick of the midfield bunch.

Instead, the Chiefs midfielder has been at home, hoping to finally be free of lingering concussion symptoms.

The only thing that truly matters for now is Ngatai's health. But when he hopefully recovers, the missed opportunity will niggle both him and the All Blacks coaches.

The niggle is on two fronts: there's the missed opportunity of giving Ngatai more exposure to test football. There's also, which is more of a concern, the uncertainty of when and how he will integrate back into action and the risks that, therefore, presents in considering Ngatai an option to be involved against Australia in August.

Before his injury, Ngatai was the form midfielder in New Zealand. He was probably the form midfielder in Super Rugby.

And when a player is running hot like he was, he would have been well utilised in this series. He most likely wouldn't have started -- that role was destined to be Ryan Crotty's on account of his previous caps and efforts for the All Blacks which have been near flawless.

But Ngatai would have been injected from the bench and if all had gone to plan, he may have even been in the frame, with the series in the bag, to have started in Dunedin.

He's a player in whom the selectors have considerable interest because they clearly feel the midfield is an area they haven't yet got clarity on their preferred combination.

Ngatai could have offered salvation in that as he is equally comfortable at second-five or centre.

He's a linebreaker and a distributor -- capable of being both a second decision-maker and an out and out take the gainline sort of guy.

When he won his solitary cap last year in Samoa, the coaches were impressed with his maturity and work ethic and he integrated quickly. Having been around for a few seasons and also having captained New Zealand Maori, Ngatai has the maturity and composure the All Blacks are looking for in their midfielders.

That quality has been missing so far and while the selectors would never say as much, they are presumably a little anxious projecting forward to the Sydney clash with the Wallabies and whom they might play in their midfield that night.

"I don't think we have filled all the gaps yet, it is too early to say after two tests," said All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.

"We have to fit Sonny [Bill Williams] back in when he comes back and there may be some other sevens players we look at when they come back and where do they fit if they fit at all?

"Charlie Ngatai hasn't played any football because of his injury so we will wait for him to come right and look at what we are going to do with because he's a pretty special player, too," said Hansen.

Midfield we are still working away quietly away at."

- NZ Herald

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