All Blacks watch: Ngani Laumape, Ryan Crotty, Joe Moody make their cases heard
OPINION: In a weekly segment, Liam Napier runs the rule over how the All Blacks, and some of the contenders for the jersey, are performing this Super Rugby season.
Ryan Crotty (Crusaders)
Statement performance from the Crusaders second five-eighth, who now appears the only certainty in the starting All Blacks midfield. There was a bit of everything from Crotty on a dewy Saturday night in Christchurch. He ran well, made his tackles, got involved at the breakdown and put in a couple of deft cross-field kicks.
In the mould of Conrad Smith, Crotty invariably makes the right decisions at the right times. His strong voice and experience will be crucial to help Beauden Barrett guide the All Blacks come June, too.
Ngani Laumape (Hurricanes)
He may not be right in the frame just yet but certainly deserves a mention for his compelling body of work so far this season. Laumape is a tank. His direct running, low centre of gravity, power, pace and support play have been to the fore all year.
In 10 games he's made 25 clean breaks, beaten 35 defenders and missed five of 48 tackles. Richie Mo'unga was his latest victim on Saturday but there have been many others. Laumape, like Matt Duffie, is now coming into his own in his second year back from rugby league. His destructive presence must be on the radar.
Owen Franks (Crusaders)
Another to offer a seriously impressive shift in a completely dominant Crusaders pack.
Joe Moody (Crusaders)
Chewed up and spat out Hurricanes tight head Jeff Toomaga-Allen. Often susceptible to giving away silly penalties, Moody also combined well with Owen Franks to dish out some punishing defence around the ruck fringes.
Rieko Ioane (Blues)
Peaking at the right time. Coincidence or otherwise, Ioane's shift to the left wing has coincided with a sharp rise in form. Four tries in the past two weeks have been just reward for Ioane's involvement. The 20-year-old has brilliant hands, latching on to even the most difficult offloads. Throw in his step, fend, pace and it is easy to see why he is one of the best finishers going around.
TJ Perenara (Hurricanes)
Playing behind beaten pack is any halfback's nightmare scenario. Pressure is relentless as you are constantly going backwards. Ball is scrappy, and everyone around you tends to be scrambling. Perenara had to deal with all this against the Crusaders but it's fair to say the scoreline would have been worse but for his presence. His cover defence, often overlooked as part of a halfback's brief, was superb.
Malakai Fekitoa (Highlanders)
It's been a frustrating period in Fekitoa's career as he tries to live up to the hype and expectations that accompanied his breakout seasons. Defensively, he remains among New Zealand's best midfielders in terms of reading the play. But his attack has struggled to reach the same heights. Fekitoa seems to thrive in Africa, and when the Highlanders needed him most he stepped up in Pretoria to score the match-winning try with a piece of individual brilliance. It could be the confidence spark he needs.
Under pressure: Midfield contenders
Anton Lienert-Brown, George Moala, Ryan Crotty, Malakai Fekitoa, Sonny Bill Williams, Charlie Ngatai... the list goes on in such a competitive area. Moala has been a big mover of late - his distribution and option-taking improving out of sight from centre, and he can also cover wing. Lienert-Brown has endured second-year dip on attack but is unlikely to be discarded after a string of impressive test displays last season. Williams, too, has not yet shown enough with injuries and his late start disrupting continuity. Ngatai is the dark horse, having just returned from concussion. He is a genuinely classy footballer capable of covering both midfield roles. Two are likely to miss out, leaving some tough selection choices.