Luatua the link All Blacks need
September 10, 2013
Steven Luatua is playing his part in a balanced backrow, according to Jeff Wilson © Getty Images
Finally, the Rugby Championship has reached the time where the two best teams, New Zealand and South Africa, will go head-to-head at Eden Park on Saturday.
Both teams have built through the season very well, exposing some new talent as well as seeing their senior pros return to form. The South Africans have continued to build on their June successes against world rugby's lightweights and in recent weeks they have improved further.
This leaves us with the tantalising prospect of the world's No.1 and 2 teams meeting when they are in their best form. I expect to see few changes in both sides, other than for injury, and this gives us a real opportunity to see where both teams really are.
There are a couple of things of real interests to me in this match.
The first is the selection of blindside flanker. It's important when looking at any loose-forward combination that you consider the combination of skills that may be required for any given Test match.
Steven Luatua has no doubt announced himself in the Test arena but his performances should not be looked at in isolation. There's always a balance needed between the loose forward trio. And the balance of work and responsibility fits across each member of the trio.
There has been some suggestion Luatua has not been sighted enough in the thick of the action. I certainly believe that this is an absolute misconception. There is no doubt that when looking at the All Blacks' loose forward trio, there is great balance between the physical intention at the contestable parts of the game, such as the tackle and the breakdown areas, as well as the requirement to link the backs with the forwards.
Luatua has been given the responsibility that Kieran Read used to fulfil when he played No.6 for the All Blacks: the ability to play the game on the edges, to run with the ball in hand, to defend in the open spaces as well as being an offensive tackler in the tight.
The work rate of Richie McCaw and Kieran Read is second to none. McCaw's game has evolved to the point where he is a constant threat in and around the ball. He still possesses his tremendous aerobic capacity to be a link player but he is beyond compare playing in and around the fringes.
Essentially, Read still operates like a blindside blanker, the only difference being that he is off the back of the scrum. The selection debate this week will be whether or not Sam Cane can play the role as enforcer as McCaw does.
The one thing we can all agree on is that Liam Messam deserves an opportunity as the starting All Blacks No.6 given his form through this year's Super Rugby season. If Sam Cane and Steven Luatua both start this week they will be well and truly tested by a South African loose-forward trio that is both imposing and abrasive.
The South Africans come into this game with the greatest confidence they have had for a very long time. They, too, come in on the back of change. The introduction of new players like Duane Vermeulen, Willie le Roux and Eben Etzebeth is matched by the reinvigoration of older hands like Ruan Pienaar, and Jannie and Bismarck du Plessis.
And coach Heyneke Meyer has taken the Springboks back to their traditional roots. He has simplified their game by playing to their strengths and giving them a self-belief that serves them well.
Perhaps the most important aspect of their play in the Rugby Championship to date has been their ability to finish the game as strongly as they have started. With their physical presence at the set piece, and accuracy in defence, they will challenge the All Blacks at all the contestable parts of the game.
Expect a fierce battle at scrum time, a challenging time at lineouts and a free-for-all at the breakdown. Their kick-and-chase is both organised and built around pressure and any kicked ball that can be challenged for will be vied for with purpose.
The All Blacks attempted to be more efficient in drizzly conditions but were frustrated by the little inaccuracies which plagued their game. The selection of Ma'a Nonu will give assurance to the mid-field and his experience will be invaluable on such a big occasion. Dan Carter will improve on last week's performance and expect to see, if the conditions allow, the All Blacks' back three counter-attack with real purpose.
If there is one question surrounding this Test match it will be the performance of the All Blacks' scrum. The Springboks have signalled their intentions and will attack the All Blacks' scrum with great passion. They will see this phase of the game as an opportunity to stifle the All Blacks' attack.
The All Blacks' reserve bench continues to impress and perhaps it may be this match-up that will determine a very tight, combative Test.
Follow live text commentary of the Test between New Zealand and South Africa on Saturday, September 14, from 5pm (AEST), 7pm (NZT), 9am (SAST), 7am (GMT)
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