Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Black midfield rebuild takes another hit with Charlie Ngatai set to miss rest of 2016

Charlie Ngatai. Photo / Photosport
Charlie Ngatai. Photo / Photosport

Back in March and April, 2016 was shaping as the year of Charlie Ngatai. The Chiefs midfielder was slicing through just about every defence he encountered and displaying an impressively broad portfolio of skills.

If all had gone to plan he'd have been on the bench for the first test and then slowly developed from there. He could, if everything had stayed on course, have established himself as a regular All Blacks starter by now.

But 2016 is no longer going to be the year of Ngatai as he has been all but ruled out of contention for the All Blacks end of year tour. The concussion he suffered at the end of Super Rugby has still not come right and even if it did, he's just about run out of time to develop appropriate match conditioning in the Mitre 10 Cup to be able to prove his readiness to travel with the national side.

The All Blacks will be disappointed about that, but more for Ngatai than themselves. They have coped so far without him and have probably been wary of ever factoring him into their end of year configuarations.

It has been an especially tough and fascinating year for the All Blacks in regard to their efforts to build a new midfield in the absence of Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith.

Nothing has run smoothly or as they would have quite expected but they have seen Ryan Crotty and Malakai Fekitoa slowly build an increasingly effective combination.

They are, as should be expected, a work in progress but the signs are promising that they are settling. Defensively they have been rock solid - especially Fekitoa who made several good decisions against the Boks in Christchurch and hit attackers hard on the gainline.

The flow and finesse isn't quite there in terms of their handling and timing, but their attacking running lines and understanding of each other is ahead of expectations.

If all had gone to plan, Sonny Bill Williams and Ngatai would have been in the mix, allowing the selectors to expand their midfield options.

But while those two, should they both recover, will come into the squad next year, their absence in 2016 hasn't been anywhere near as damaging as first feared.

In their absence both Anton Leinert-Brown and George Moala have stepped up and, on limited appearances albeit, shown they can play at this level.

It was always going to be a year for the All Blacks to build and develop new midfield options - and that's exactly what's happened. It's just the personnel has been different to the men the coaches were expecting to be using.

The only question now in the likely absence of Ngatai from the end of year our party is whether there is room for both Seta Tamanivalu and Rieko Ioane. The latter is a player of considerable interest and almost certain to be taken.

He can play both wing and centre, but the selectors might want to use him in just one role to begin with to keep life simple. That's probably going to see him picked as a wing and Tamanivalu left to learn his fate.

- Radio Sport

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