We know all about the strengths of Kieran Read, Richie McCaw, Ma’a Nonu and Israel Dagg; they are superstars of the game and need no introduction.
Here, we take a quick look at three All Blacks who aren’t quite at that stage just yet, but have the physical, mental and technical abilities to join the pantheon of rugby’s greatest players.
The sabbaticals taken by Dan Carter and Richie McCaw were greeted with some concern in New Zealand, mainly focused around who would keep their seats warm while they put the feet up. Conrad Smith’s break has seen a little less worry, despite the fact that his intelligence is just as important to the All Blacks as either of the two biggest names.
The reason was that All Blacks supporters knew Ben Smith was ready to step into the outside centre position after an incredible breakthrough international season. The 27-year-old has always been a class act at Super Rugby level, even though he has played in some poor Highlanders teams.
A versatile back, Smith was the top scorer in this year’s Rugby Championship, crossing the whitewash eight times in six games on the right wing. Moving into the centre for the last four games has slowed that scoring rate [one try on this tour], but Smith’s evasive brilliance remains intact.
The Dunedin native may look like an IT technician, but he is about as ‘pure’ a rugby player as you will find. He is all about intelligent running lines, extraordinary footwork, vision and a sheer desire to attack space. After the power of Tevita Kuridrani, Smith is an altogether different proposition for Ireland’s midfield.
As ‘natural’ a rugby player as you will find.
Luatua is a hard man to stop in full flight. ©INPHO/Photosport/Andrew Cornaga.
The 22-year-old blindside came into this tour off the back of his first full Super Rugby season, and there is still a little of the unpolished diamond about him. Luatua is a powerful ball-carrier and over the course of his 10 All Blacks caps this year, the Auckland native has added finesse to his physical gifts.
Luatua’s emergence international level actually came with Samoa, when he represented their U20 side at the 2010 Junior World Championship, losing to an Ireland team that included Simon Zebo and Marty Moore. As expected, New Zealand recognised the flanker’s potential and swooped in to secure his allegiance thereafter.
The following season, Luatua played in the JWC again, but this time wearing black and leaving with a winner’s medal. It is in 2013 that the Blues man has really shot to fame though, thanks mainly to his superb form in the Super Rugby competition, where his dynamism stood out week-on-week.
Moving into the senior international arena has taken some adjustment, but Luatua has demonstrated enough to suggest that he will push Liam Messam hard for the number six shirt at the 2015 World Cup. Steve Hansen wants to see more aggression in the tight from Luatua this weekend, so Ireland have been warned.
A dynamic runner with the intelligence to pass and offload.
Here’s a second row who can pass; look out for Retallick. ©INPHO/Billy Stickland.
The 22-year-old is selected on the bench at the end of a quite sensational season in which he has shown that he is a world-class lock for the All Blacks alongside Sam Whitelock. Retallick actually made his international debut against Ireland, playing in all three Tests matches in the summer of 2012.
A Junior World Champion with New Zealand’s U20 side in 2011, the 6ft 9ins second row has actually dropped weight since his school days to his current 121kg. An incredibly fit player, Retallick famously beat Brad Thorn’s long-standing All Blacks beep test record for tight five forwards last year.
The Chiefs man is excellent at the line-out and provides a powerful shove in the scrum too. His huge engine allows him to get through mountains of work in the tight, tackling and spoiling. Keep a close eye on Retallick’s work at the rucks when the All Blacks attack; he is excellent at clearing bodies off the ball and ensuring possession is recycled quickly.
A new string to the youngster’s bow this season has been a much-improved passing game. He has surprised several defences with this ability to pass off either hand, often behind forwards running decoy lines. Quick hands are not something often associated with locks, but Retallick is typical of an All Blacks side that places a high premium on draw and pass skills.
A complete, aggressive, accurate and skillful second row, Ireland’s hands will be full when he appears off the bench.