Victor Vito continues to be a slow burner at test level but can take inspiration from blindside rival Liam Messam.
It was supposed to be Vito's turn to stamp a mark of physicality on the No 6 jersey against Argentina in Wellington on Saturday night in front of his hometown crowd.
Instead, Messam made another statement of intent after fizzing into action three minutes after halftime during the All Blacks' 21-5 win.
His performance earned high praise from coach Steve Hansen and almost certainly another test start against South Africa in Dunedin on Saturday.
"If you are saying Liam's playing well, yeah he is," Hansen said yesterday. "He's come back into the squad, he's had a real consistent Super 15 season and he's been consistent for us and he's offering plenty.
"That's really pleasing. He's setting the standard and the other guys will have to come to that standard if they want to take the jersey off him."
To be fair to Vito, his luck against the Pumas was as rotten as the weather.
He fumbled a high ball, shelled a pass and ignored his support near halftime.
However, none of the All Blacks covered themselves in glory during a difficult first spell.
In contrast, Messam came on as the visitors began to tire and thrived when they were reduced to 14 men - the missing player being his opposite number, Julio Farias Cabello.
However, at 28, there is undoubted zip and impact to Messam's play, both with ball in hand and in defence. He is no Jerome Kaino, but where he once ran sideways and lost his place in defence, Messam went about his work against the Pumas with purpose and confidence.
He adds a dynamic flair to the toil of Richie McCaw, increasingly a ball carrier, and tough-as-teak play of Kieran Read that suits the All Blacks style.
It has taken Messam 13 tests, five long seasons and some off-field maturity to find his way in a role that sits awkwardly between the more obvious tasks of openside and No 8.
"Physicality is a big part of it, but off the field as well, finding a balance off the field," Messam said when asked why his form had improved this season.
"It's not just all about rugby, there is life outside rugby which I think I've balanced out well.
"A few things in my life that have happened, that I'll keep to myself, have really put life into perspective, that it's not all about rugby.
"This is only here for a short time, so enjoy it the best you can and give it a good crack."
Anyone writing Vito off is taking a short-sighted view of a player on a steady upward curve that remains far from its peak.
At 25, he has plenty of time to add to his 16 tests.
Undoubtedly, he will feature again, with the battle of the blindside flankers likely to see-saw through the rest of the test season.
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- © Fairfax NZ News
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