All Blacks side more velvet glove than iron fist

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 05:00 06/06/2014
Ma'a Nonu
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BIG UNIT: Ma'a Nonu will be able to give the All Blacks' backline genuine punch this weekend.

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Subtlety, rather than raw-boned power, will be a feature of the All Blacks attack this week.

Losing Julian Savea to ongoing knee bruising changes the well-balanced dynamic of the back-three. It also leaves the backline down on size, with Ma'a Nonu now the lone ranger in terms of genuine punch.

Savea's absence will force the All Blacks to rely heavily on the world-class second five-eighth to crash over the advantage line from set-pieces, with Jerome Kaino likely to play a similar role from second-phase play in order to create the fast delivery and vital momentum they thrive on.

Savea has made the coveted No 11 jersey his own since winning the battle with Hosea Gear. In 11 of 14 unbeaten tests last year, his power offered the back three a point of difference. When Savea wasn't available, injured utility Charles Piutau filled in on confrontational duties.

In superb form for the Hurricanes this year before being restricted by his knee complaint, Savea is near-unstoppable close to the line and with a head of steam up in open field.

Numerous defenders have come off second best and England certainly won't miss the prospect of confronting him front-on in Saturday's first test at Eden Park.

Savea is no certainty to return in Hamilton next week, either. Cory Jane's promotion highlights the depth available for Steve Hansen, but Savea's absence undoubtedly strips the All Blacks of an irreplaceable attacking threat. There's probably no better wing at beating opponents one-on-one. Nineteen tries in 20 tests is a phenomenal strike-rate.

"He'll be missed, but Cory Jane brings his own style of game," Hansen said. "He's not as big, obviously, but he's got some pretty special skills, too.

"They are different players. Julian is a beast and Cory tends to whip it. He's good on his feet and is a great finisher. There will be differences but they'll be subtle. What Cory will bring to the game will enhance us just as much as what Julian does. We are very fortunate we've got a world-class player to come and take his place."

To cater for Jane's promotion, behind closed doors the All Blacks will adjust their plans. Not dramatically. Variety will become crucial, though. Expect a lot more changing of angles, decoy runners to create space and Aaron Cruden's short-kicking game to utilise the finesse of Jane, Ben Smith and Israel Dagg.

Also, watch for Dagg's ability to slot in at first receiver and allow Cruden the freedom to pick his times to run.

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With, essentially, three past or present fullbacks in the back three, footwork, speed and flair will be the focus, in order to exploit mismatches with big, tiring English forwards. There will also be added pressure on inexperience England first-five Freddie Burns, knowing any aimless kicking could be punished by lethal counter-attacking.

"Julian can bowl people over," Dagg said bluntly. "Cory is probably a little bit small for that, but he's good on his feet, strong in the air and has great instincts, so what we lose I'm sure he'll make up for it."

Back on the right wing, where he scored 10 tries from nine tests last year, after playing his last five at centre, it would not surprise to see Smith feature prominently.

"It doesn't worry me but it's always good in the back three. It's a good position for my skill set," the Highlanders fullback said. "Last year a lot of hard work was done on the inside to set up tries. That always helps, and probably makes you look a bit better than you are at times." 

- Stuff

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