By Gregor Paul in Tokyo

This Saturday could see Nehe Milner-Skudder in an All Blacks jersey for the last time.

His name is being linked to just about every club in France at the moment which would suggest he's instructed his agent to shop him around and see who is interested in having him when he comes off contract next year.

His motives for testing the market are obvious and, in the context of a career with a short earning span, compelling.


Milner-Skudder will turn 28 next month which is hardly old but at the same time coaches aren't desperately excited by outside backs who are closing in on 30.

Experience is great but when it comes to wings, it's no substitute for speed and agility.

And the latter two qualities are at the core of Milner-Skudder's game: they are in fact, almost entirely his game and both have been compromised by a run of injuries too cruel to wish on the makers of reality TV even.

[Read more: Spot the newbies - ABs name fresh-faced team for Japan]

Since wowing everyone at the 2015 World Cup, Milner-Skudder has barely played. He's had three major surgeries and as a consequence, he's played as many games in the last three years as many of his peers have played in the last three months.

That ridiculously difficult to read step of his hasn't quite been on view the way it was in 2015. The blinding acceleration hasn't quite returned and the feeling that he could avoid three defenders in a phone box has rescinded.

In his absence, Rieko Ioane has emerged and in two seasons, established that he will most likely be one of the great power wings of the modern era.

Waisake Naholo has found a steadiness and composure to his game, Jordie Barrett has hinted that he has the skill-set to be a decision-making fullback and George Bridge is charging up fast on the rails as a new generation Ben Smith.


Milner-Skudder will be looking at the volume of competition there will be for outside backs next year and beyond, and have found it hard to convince himself he'll be a must pick for the All Blacks.

He's not at the moment. He's in Japan with the crew of extras and won't be heading to Europe and because of his age, the uncertainty about his future test selection prospects it's no wonder he's thinking about a move at the end of next year.

Nehe Milner-Skudder has had three major surgeries since 2015. Photo / Photosport
Nehe Milner-Skudder has had three major surgeries since 2015. Photo / Photosport

But as much as his All Blacks future looks a little bleak, it could and hopefully will, brighten in the next six months.

His body has been hammered since 2015 and it takes more time than many realise to fully recover – to get back to being super sharp and agile the way he was.

The fact he isn't quite there yet doesn't mean he won't get there and the test against Japan, will hopefully not be his last, but instead be a potent reminder of his class and a nod to the All Blacks coaches that he could be the same weapon at the next World Cup that he was at the last.

Hopefully, it will be evidence that he has found that ability to play on top of the ground again and is back to being as hard to tackle as a puff of smoke.

Hopefully, because Milner-Skudder is one of those players who gives rugby the frisson of anticipation it needs. He's a genuinely unpredictable force when he's at his best – capable of sparking something from nothing and the sort of instinctive, natural footballer on whom the All Blacks success is built.

As much as you fear for him that he'll be cut in two when he dashes into the heavy traffic, the sense that he could emerge out the other side unscathed tends to outweigh everything else.

He's a champion for the smaller man: proof incarnate that there is a valid alternative to asking loose forwards in wing's clothing to smash their way over defenders on the widest reaches of the field.

And who doesn't find themselves rooting for David when facing Goliath?

If Milner-Skudder can hold off signing his future away to an offshore club, he might sit back in three years or so with 50 test caps and be thankful he was patient.

Thankful he gave himself a bit longer to find the edge his game has been missing.

All Blacks team to play Japan at Ajinomoto Stadium in Tokyo on Saturday, kick-off 6.45pm:

(New caps in bold)

15. Jordie Barrett
14. Nehe Milner-Skudder
13. Matt Proctor
12. Ngani Laumape
11. Waisake Naholo
10. Richie Mo'unga
9. Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi
8. Luke Whitelock (c)
7. Dalton Papalii
6. Vaea Fifita
5. Jackson Hemopo
4. Patrick Tuipulotu
3. Angus Ta'avao
2. Dane Coles
1. Ofa Tuungafasi

Reserves: Liam Coltman, Tim Perry, Tyrel Lomax, Dillon Hunt, Gareth Evans, Mitchell Drummond, Brett Cameron, George Bridge.