The great Ben Smith (yes, overused word but appropriate in this case) will go to the World Cup – but maybe only as a bench player or a squad member.
That partly depends on how Sevu Reece and, in particular, George Bridge are judged against the Wallabies and, more importantly, whether the All Blacks' brains trust are of the mind that 33-year-old Smith has hit the invisible wall that sometimes quietly fells international backs – or whether he just needs more time.
I tend towards the former, while acknowledging the talent of the man. In three tests since returning from his pinged hammie, Smith, usually fast to adjust, has failed to reach his own high standards. His pace seems down, his high ball skills seem a bit low ball and that wonderful, ghosting running which takes him past the first tackler and on sinuous runs feeding a hungry All Black counter-attack…well, the first tackler is winning more lately.
Backs, because they operate at pace and in the high visibility of open spaces, can lose their juju quickly – particularly on the wing. Julian Savea is one example; Joe Rokocoko another. The latter was lithe and blisteringly quick and seemed set to break Doug Howlett's test try-scoring record – but his speed, work rate and ability under the high ball faded.
Hope I'm wrong. Smith in his pomp is a pleasure to watch and it is not overstating things to say that he pushes the incomparable Christian Cullen close when it comes to the benchmark for attacking All Black fullbacks.
Rieko Ioane has also been puzzlingly muted of late, his speed, impact and confidence seem reduced; he hasn't imposed himself much – but will come again. Rokocoko had the same problem at about the same stage of his All Black career, and recovered.
Smith may be headed for the bench, particularly if the Beauden Barrett-Richie Mo'unga show persists – and it will, though I still adhere to the school of thought that says the All Blacks will approach this World Cup in a much, much tighter way than the helter-skelter, cross-field running and possession-gifting, dinky little kicks they have been offering for some time now.
For big games – like South Africa in pool play and maybe the quarter-final and/or semifinal – they may go ultra-conservative, holding the ball more, kicking for territory and at goal instead of the unreliable kick to the corner for a lineout.
Smith could find himself on the bench, covering wing and fullback – maybe the perfect player to bring on for the last 20 minutes. Or they could start Barrett at first-five and Smith at fullback for some close matches, with Mo'unga coming on to do the dual playmaker dance in the last quarter – when more space is available.
Smith has now played 79 tests, 31 on the wing and 32 at fullback (six at centre and 10 as a replacement). Of his 33 test tries, 21 have been scored when he started as a winger, 10 at fullback, one at centre and one as a sub. Perhaps more alarmingly for those of superstitious bent, Smith has been on the wing for the last four All Black reverses – to Australia in Perth last weekend, the 16-16 draw with South Africa, the loss to Ireland in 2018 and that year's loss to South Africa in Wellington.
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He hasn't scored a try for the All Blacks for some time – his last touchdown coming in October against Australia in Japan, seven test matches ago. His return after injury has been underwhelming but he may yet revive his touch.
There is a third option: Smith as a squad player only. He is off to France after Japan, ending a great career, so there will be a body of opinion that his successor needs to be anointed now: Jordie Barrett.
The case for Barrett becomes clearer if you believe this will be the outside backs contingent for the World Cup: Ioane, Bridge, Smith, Jordie Barrett (Beauden and Mo'unga will be listed as first-fives) and one of Reece or Braydon Ennor – probably the former, although at the time of writing he had yet to have an accurate kicking game aimed at him.
If the All Blacks continue with dual playmakers, they will need utility bench players, particularly in the backs – typically three alongside five forwards. TJ Perenara takes one spot, a midfielder another; Jordie Barrett can cover fullback, wing, midfield and, at a pinch, first five/playmaker. The omission of Franks for Nepo Laulala strongly suggested the selectors continued their experimenting/rotation as planned even after last weekend's hiding by the Wallabies – an admirable display of coolness under fire if so.
Some felt loosehead prop Joe Moody was more likely to be dropped (he often cops scrum penalties) than Franks, a consistently good tackler and scrummager at a time of not many tighthead options. Hansen has called for props to be busier carrying the ball but, rather than insert the more athletic Angus Ta'avao at tighthead for Australia, the selectors promoted Laulala – like Franks, more of a scrummager than a ball carrier – for his first start since Italy last November.
Hansen was at pains to point out the Bledisloe took priority over the Rugby Championship and was still subservient to the World Cup – but it is little wonder many folk felt the need to panic, just a bit, after a bravura performance by the Wallabies and Jerome Garces' typically difficult refereeing of the All Blacks.
But when the Rugby Championship is done, it'll be interesting to see if this is an ender for Bender as a first-choice All Black.