Wilson: There's no winging it in the All Blacks

DONE AND DUSTED: Doug Howlett, the All Blacks' all-time try-scoring record holder here in action for Munster in January, announced his retirement from rugby, following shoulder surgery.
DONE AND DUSTED: Doug Howlett, the All Blacks' all-time try-scoring record holder here in action for Munster in January, announced his retirement from rugby, following shoulder surgery.

With the retirement of Doug Howlett, it's a good time to look back at, and maybe peek into the future of, All Black wing play.

Howlett, of course, holds the record as the All Blacks' leading try-scorer - a mark which puts him at the top of a list involving some pretty fair company.

He was one of the new breed of wingers, not only a finishing machine but a player who went looking for work and whose support play was second to none.

Not only did he score 49 test tries, but he was probably right in the picture for another 49.

Having a nose for the tryline is one of the core skills of a wing, along with being in the right place at the right time, and reading the right opportunities to use what is usually a wing's biggest asset - his speed.

Not every player can lose touch with a line-break, and then find a way to receive the last pass.

Howlett, like many before him, was one of those players. One of the best.

He would have had to chance his game, too, to cope with the changing role of the winger in the modern game.

Not only are you required to finish, or support, but also to carry the ball into contact and have a greater physical presence.

Howlett also had to develop a kicking game strong enough to wear the All Black No 15 jersey.

Everyone accepts now that the wing and fullback skill sets have become one and the same.

With the emergence of the likes of Joe Rokocoko, Julian Savea and nowFrank Halai, it's clear the need to be more than just a try-scoring machine has affected the position.

With wingers now having to possess multiple skills, defences are continually under multiple threats.

Even a player like Savea, with all his pace and power, has a subtle kick-and-chase game which is equally dangerous.

You'll find in any wing selection the ability to deal with the ball in the air in a contestable situation decides the fate of many a player.

Where you once used to rely heavily on the man wearing No 15, there is now full responsibility on all the back three to share the load.

With the introduction of league-style cross-field kicks, being capable of contesting possession in the air has become a key skill requirement.

With that in mind, how much does size matter?

In New Zealand, we still have a fascination with speed and power. Hosea Gear, Savea, Halai, George Moala, even Rene Ranger, are prime examples of big men who can also move quickly. At the international level, the ability to carry in close quarters and get over the gain-line is critical.

Defences are better, tensions are greater, and the difference between winning and losing can be centimetres.

With possession so key, and collisions so contestable, the work done in the outside channels can be just as physical as that up front. So it helps to be big and strong.

The All Blacks, however, have always been blessed in finding the balance between power and finesse.

Back in my day, while we had Jonah Lomu thundering away on his wing, there I was on the other side, showcasing far fewer physical attributes.

This is when a player of the ilk of Cory Jane, and perhaps this year Ben Smith, comes into their own, with the ability not only to beat players, but create opportunities with a different set of skills.

We've seen already with the Hurricanes how huge the loss of Jane has been.

In a season of frustration for the Highlanders, Ben Smith has been their shining light - and I believe the All Blacks must find room for him somewhere in their backline.

Is there is a role for the smaller man in test rugby?

If you look at the form of Tim Nanai-Williams for the Chiefs, if right place-right time and speed are the key factors for a wing, then this guy fits the bill.

But he's not a dominant tackler in an age when defence and physicality have a high priority.

Some wonder whether Howlett's record of 49 test tries will be beaten in the modern game, where tries are at a premium at the top level.

I have no doubt it will. Players have to stay healthy and maintain form, but with the way the All Blacks play, and the amount of tests they have, if it's not Savea, who already has 12 tries in nine tests, it will be someone else.

What we should be excited about is that the record is held by players wearing Nos 11, 14 or 15. That's what sets us apart from the rest of the world.

Sunday Star Times