Andy Ellis' All Blacks exclusion hard to fathom
OPINION: You have to feel for Andy Ellis. If Canterbury's talismanic No 9 isn't one of the three best halfbacks in the New Zealand game right now, then Steve Hansen's all in favour of Kiwis propping up Aussie rugby teams.
Ellis is clearly on top of his game, and has backed up an impressive Super Rugby season with a standout provincial campaign with the Cantabs en route to title No 5 on the trot on Saturday night.
Yet one of the good guys of New Zealand rugby won't be touring with the All Blacks because coach Hansen persists in picking a player - Piri Weepu - whose form has never reached any great heights in 2012.
Something's just not right about that.
Aren't our All Blacks meant to be the best? The pinnacle? It's hard to see how Ellis could have done any more to earn a deserved All Black tour. Even Hansen admitted as much today.
I know it's dangerous to read too much into provincial form, which is clearly a long, long way behind what's required for the international game. But it's not as if Ellis is a greenhorn. He's 28, a proven competitor (26 tests) who is playing some fine rugby at the moment.
Weepu, sadly, is not. Not playing that much. And when he does, not playing that well.
At his best the transplanted Wellingtonian is a fine No 9 who reads the game beautifully and has a wonderful instinct about his play. He's not the sharpest passer about, but his feel and rhythm make him a very effective player.
But Weepu has struggled throughout this year. He came in short of fitness, and has never established anything positive since as he's played a dangerous game of catchup.
Weepu has worked hard to lose weight and gain conditioning. He's got stuck into a tough early-morning regimen of boxing training and gradually the extra kegs have come off.
But that's been at a cost to his game which has never looked fluent this year. He's lacked an edge about his play and has often appeared jaded. All the extra work may have taken a toll.
So why take Weepu? Loyalty is one reason. The experienced campaigner came through in last year's World Cup big time, and Hansen clearly feels a debt of gratitude on that front.
Experience too. Weepu has played 66 tests and he's a player Hansen feels confident sending into late-game situations. His goal-kicking probably doesn't hurt either - a forte that may be saving his bacon at the moment.
Don't get me wrong. I'm a big Weepu fan. I love his individuality, his feel for the game and his big-match temperament.
But I can't help think how a tour with the Maori might not have been a better option for a player who clearly needs a shot of confidence.
Two, maybe three, games as a starting No 9, short and sharp, then get home and get your break in before launching a proper pre-season buildup for Super Rugby.
At the same time you would have rewarded a player who has battled away all year, showed consistent form and was deserving of an international recall.
Note, I'm not suggesting Ellis should have toured at Tawera Kerr-Barlow's expense. I like the inclusion of a young up-and-comer in the squad, and the experience can only benefit the Waikato No 9's development.
What it came down to was a straight decision between Ellis and Weepu as the likely test backup, and something says to me Hansen has done himself a disservice with this selection.
Hansen expressed the obligatory platitudes when asked about Ellis' non-selection at today's press conference.
"He knows the door is not shut," said the boss. "He's shown us he's got the grit and determination to want to be there. He's just got to take that form into Super Rugby next year."
Ellis could be forgiven for wondering aloud: "Again?"
There will be many who question the inclusion of Ali Williams for similar reasons.
But I don't think this one is quite so cut and dried.
For starters there wasn't a standout fourth lock who demanded inclusion ahead of Williams - though some will suggest Craig Clarke or Jason Eaton presented more compelling form.
And you can make a case that Williams, finally injury free, deserves a chance to show he's still got what it takes to play at this level. Whether he gets the chance as the fourth-ranked second-rower is highly doubtful.
Otherwise it's hard to argue with too much else in Hansen's touring squad.
Dane Coles deserves a chance at hooker and it's smart to keep Beauden Barrett in the mix. Adam Thomson's inclusion might raise an eyebrow or two, given his supposed imminent defection, but either Hansen's heard something we haven't, or he doesn't have another loosie he'd like to blood.
The rest pretty much picked themselves. Ellis must be thinking to himself: "If only it were that easy."
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