By Liam Napier in Rome

Underutilised to this point, Ngani Laumape could yet prove a game changer for the All Blacks.

In their ongoing battles to counteract smothering defences the All Blacks have long believed Sonny Bill Williams is the answer at second five-eighth.

Williams is supposed to be the hard-running, direct presence that consistently challenges, buckles, the line and forces opposition to backpedal.

Advertisement

His well-noted offloading game brings another threatening element, while proven big match temperament across two codes and strong voice are other valued qualities.

Williams may yet come right next year. As they did with Dan Carter prior to the 2015 World Cup, the All Blacks are likely to keep the faith and give the 33-year-old every chance to rekindle his best.

But with continued questions hovering over Williams' fitness and form, Laumape is expected to get something of a second chance to stake his growing claims this week in Rome after initially being left on the outer.

Laumape is an intriguing case.

Just as he could easily emerge as the solution at No 12 so, too, could he miss the World Cup squad.

Anton Lienert-Brown's ability to cover both midfield roles is a big tick, and while Ryan Crotty didn't provide the desired impact against Ireland, the previous week at Twickenham he was instrumental in helping regain backline poise after coming off the bench 30 minutes in.

Ngani Laumape chats to Sonny Bill Williams. Photo / Photosport
Ngani Laumape chats to Sonny Bill Williams. Photo / Photosport

Jack Goodhue appears to have all but cemented his presence as the first-choice centre and, so, if Laumape is to make the final World Cup cut next year, he probably needs to edge out one of Lienert-Brown, Williams or Crotty as carrying five midfielders may be a luxury.

That's no easy task. There may also be a reluctance to start Laumape and Goodhue, given their inexperience, in a World Cup knockout match.

Advertisement

Laumape can't be discounted, though. He is a genuine point of difference; incredibly hard to handle, particuarly for opposition first-fives, at full speed.

His compelling efforts in scoring three tries against Japan offered a glimpse into just how devastating he can be. And it's been a long time since we've witnessed any form of comparable performance from Williams.

Laumape's efforts in Tokyo certainly left an impression on the All Blacks, and they had no hesitation recalling him once Williams succumbed to a shoulder injury against England.

Another quality outing that combines raw pace and power this week could apply further selection pressure.

"He's had a pretty good year really. When he's had the opportunity to come in with us he's nailed everything we've wanted him to do to be honest," All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster said.

"That's why we've always said it's an area we've got some really good choices.

"He clearly missed out on this tour but played the Japan test and I thought he was probably the best player on the park that day. He played extremely well.

"He's continually adding a kicking game and first receiver game which have been two areas we've really wanted him to grow in so he should be pretty proud of the way he developed those parts of his game.

"He continues to bang on the door."

Laumape is not the finished article but, like Williams, always needed time to regain rugby rhythm after three years with the Warriors.

After impressing in the pressure caldron of the third dig at the British and Irish Lions at Eden Park last year, Laumape's test career has been a slow burn, starting just three times since.

The time has now come to let him loose. His potential upside is too obvious to ignore.