Cory Jane's return harder with Ben Smith's form
Israel Dagg jokes that Cory Jane has been scouring his whakapapa to see if he qualifies for the New Zealand Maori team. The inference is he's going to find it tough finding a spot back in these in-form All Blacks.
Dagg, of course, is only having some fun at the expense of one of the team's notable pranksters. Jane, soon to return from a knee injury that has savaged his year, has performed with such distinction for the All Blacks that it's impossible to think they won't find a place for him when he's fully fit.
Whether that's for the November tour, or whether the national selectors will give him a full Super rugby season to rediscover his sharpness remains to be seen. A lot will depend on how Jane plays when he finally tests that rebuilt knee under game conditions.
The complicating factor is Ben Smith. The unassuming Otago utility back has played so well for the All Blacks on the right wing in Jane's absence there's a case to be made it would be folly to move him from a position he's revelled in.
The man his All Blacks team-mates have dubbed "Ghost" - because "you really don't know where he's going to pop up", says Dagg - had scored five tries in his four tests in 2013 heading into last night's Bledisloe return clash in the capital.
But Smith's game is about so much more than just finishing - even though he's been doing that with trademark efficiency. He's a superb option-taker, a heady performer who always seems to make the most from every position he finds himself in.
There are, simply, no weaknesses in the Ben Smith game. He's a cerebral footballer, but an instinctive one, too. That combination has him performing at the peak of his abilities, and now an automatic choice in this All Black backline.
When Jane returns, that's going to leave four world-class players battling for those back-three positions in the All Blacks.
Any combination of Dagg, Julian Savea, Jane and Ben Smith has a pretty handy ring to it.
It's a head-scratcher that coach Steve Hansen will be happy to endure as he builds envious depth in his squad. Remember he also has Charles Piutau and Frank Halai in his mix, and these are young men with considerable upside.
But there's a short-term solution possibly at hand.
Centre Conrad Smith will sit out the November tour as he takes a well-earned extended off-season break. That leaves a hole to fill at No 13, with Smith's namesake the obvious solution.
Ben Smith has some experience at centre and he's such an adept player the national selectors have no doubt he could slot into the position with aplomb. Truth be told he's been earmarked for this role for a couple of years now.
In many ways they're similar players, except Ben Smith has a yard or two more pace. They are both thinking footballers and possess the full range of skills.
Ben Smith didn't mind admitting ahead of last night's clash against the Wallabies that he had been learning a lot from Conrad through this season.
"He's great," says Ben. "He takes the right options all the time, and he's great to play with. At the same time you learn a lot from him and what he does. He always makes that right decision - when to carry, when to offload if it's on and where the space is. He's got a good kicking game, and he's a great one to learn off."
You wonder if he's been taking notes on the man a position in, given the likelihood he'll be needed there soon. There are even suggestions he could get a run at No 13 during the Rugby Championship to ease the transition.
"The whole team takes what he does on board," says Ben of the example set by their veteran centre. "If that opportunity comes to move a bit closer in, then I'll be a lot better for it having that experience with Conrad. But I don't know when that will happen, so I'm just worried about doing the best job at wing I can."
Smith's approach is sensible. He will cross the midfield bridge when he comes to it but, in the meantime, he's all about making the most of the opportunity he's been given on the wing.
As Jane will testify, you have to make the most of your chances in these All Blacks. Step aside, and you might find the next bloke makes himself indispensable.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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