It's still early days but you can sense David Havili has almost slipped on Ben Smith's vacated All Blacks test jersey.
The Crusaders fullback has been in compelling form early in Super Rugby; Friday night's match against the Highlanders saw him repeat his form against the Blues – faultlessness under the high ball, powerful twisting runs, try assists, slickly timed passes and offloads.
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That, and his kicking from hand and useful goalkicking, is presenting a complete package. He seems to have moved ahead of Damian McKenzie and the also-in-form Jordie Barrett (whom Havili replaced in 2017 in his only All Blacks appearances when Barrett was injured).
Not to mention someone called Beauden Barrett.
All Blacks coach Ian Foster delivered a predictably opaque response when asked recently if he would continue the dual playmakers system of last year's World Cup. His answer went like this: it wasn't the reason the All Blacks lost the semifinal; he really likes both Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo'unga and he'll be having a bit of a re-think.
That could mean anything but Foster gave more of a hint later, saying the All Blacks had to "figure out how we approach that type of challenge [in the semifinal]. Some of the physicality of our game, and where we use it, needs addressing".
That is also nebulous enough to avoid saying anything of consequence but that is where Havili – and a few other candidates – could see the All Blacks' door open wider. There may be a little more emphasis on the power athlete in this World Cup cycle.
In the semifinal, the All Blacks threw repeated waves of attack at an almost immovable England defence. There didn't seem to be a Plan B and no return to the when-all-else-fails strategy of past All Black teams: tighten up, graft it up the middle, suck the forwards/defensive line in, kick the goals and apply pressure.
Instead, they kept throwing the ball around and themselves at an England defence which shepherded them to the touchlines, emphatically knocked them backwards and bossed them at the breakdowns.
Those All Blacks were, comparatively speaking in these days of large and powerful players, not gigantic. They were geared more towards moving the ball and attacking plays than power; dancers, not dreadnoughts.
Look at the backline from the World Cup semifinal: Aaron Smith, Richie Mo'unga, Anton Lienert-Brown, Jack Goodhue, Sevu Reece, George Bridge and Beauden Barrett. On the bench: TJ Perenara, Sonny Bill Williams, Jordie Barrett. Williams aside, there were no backs capable of bashing down the door (and offloading) as opposed to trying to pick the lock, though Reece has a physical dimension and Goodhue, though quiet that day, has offload skills.
It could be that Foster will introduce some power players as an alternative to, or reinforcement of, the dual playmakers/all-out attack approach of 2019. That could show itself in key areas: fullback, centre, No 8 and lock, in particular.
Which brings us back to Havili. He is by no means huge but was 88kg when he first came on the scene and is listed at 95kg now. He has the Ben Smith-like trait of being able to beat the first tackle (or two), even in these days of spirited kick chases and smothering defences. He is a hard customer to stop and has that calm temperament so vital at top level.
Jordie Barrett is a big man – tall, at any rate, and his try-saving tackle for the Hurricanes to stop charging Pumas fullback/winger Emiliano Boffelli was priceless. His long-range goalkicking can also be weaponised. However, he has yet to convince all critics re consistency – the very thing Havili is providing, well, consistently.
McKenzie's future seems obvious – the bench. He is at his best arriving in a match when the defences are tiring and splintering in the last 20-30 minutes. The experiment at 10 is over and the only issue he has is defence. He has bravery in bucketloads but his small stature means he can sometimes be bumped off when last line of defence.
In the midfield, Braydon Ennor, another close to 100kg, is playing centre to Goodhue's second-five for the Crusaders - possibly the preferred All Black combination. It seems unlikely, if more power options are sought, Ngani Laumape will be left out of All Black calculations again; Anton Lienert-Brown may be destined more for the bench this time round.
In the forwards, the form of No 8 Hoskins Sotutu is attracting attention. Sotutu's delicate grubber to set up Rieko Ioane for a try against the Waratahs will have set some antennae twitching. No one is saying he is Zinzan Brooke or expecting any dropped goals yet but he has strength as well as finesse – persuasive if the authorities feel power comes with the added value of creativity.
Shannon Frizell, who showed flashes of power in the loss to the Crusaders, needs to back it up with consistency. Crusaders' rangy tight-loosie Cullen Grace impressed everyone against the Blues and the Highlanders – he has a Brodie Retallick/Richie McCaw-type work rate and could be another to be fast-tracked.
Lock is still a worry. Pari Pari Parkinson (currently injured) has the physical and athletic attributes required. He hasn't yet looked international class but could be a development pick in the first year of the World Cup cycle, just as Retallick was.
The other strong candidate is Isaia Walker-Leaware of the Hurricanes – he has a touch of the Sam Whitelocks about him and may need only to display some attacking athleticism to go with his busy tackling to go up a level. Time will tell.
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