SBW and the All Black's midfield puzzle
SUPER RUGBY SPOTLIGHT: Sonny Bill Williams returned to the Blues starting line up against the Hurricanes and put in an inspired performance.
The All Blacks selectors could have ticked off his upcoming selection after the first forty minutes. If he remains healthy it seems like an inevitability that he will be in the 12 jersey when the All Blacks take on France.
He is unlike any other midfielder in New Zealand Super Rugby teams – he is the last of the ‘big’ midfielders in the country. While other teams have trended towards smaller, ball-playing midfielders, SBW remains a sizable force whose job is to bend the defensive line with strong carries and line running.
His ability to punch through the line and suck in defenders is unrivaled in World Rugby – when you add in the masterful offloading ability you get a unique attacking weapon. This was on show again in his return, as he wrapped one behind the back of sweeping halfback Finlay Christie whilst sandwiched between the tackles of Ardie Savea and Ngani Laumape for a try assist.
Here is the bottom line – no other 12 available for the All Blacks can create space at the line for other players like Williams. Every carry he has requires the attention of multiple defenders and as a freakish contortionist, he can get the ball away from impossible situations. There are very few players that can complete a one-on-one tackle on Williams and prevent an offload. Last year with the All Blacks he shelved a lot of the offloading but showed he has added a short kicking game to his repertoire.
Ryan Crotty, Tei Waldon, Ngani Laumape, Johnny Fa’auli have been the regular starters for each of the other franchises, with the Blues running with a carousel of players in Williams absence. The closest clone is Laumape, who is used as a compact battering ram but is significantly smaller and doesn’t possess the same level of vision. His primary instinct is to run over players, rather than anticipate the tackle and look for support.
With France playing a one-dimensional crash and bash game around Mathieu Bastareaud, picking Williams will ensure that France doesn’t have as much gain line success. His defence is imposing, and he is capable of shutting down Bastareaud single-handedly.
The British & Irish Lions success with two playmakers at 10 and 12 (Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell) raised discussion about New Zealand trending that way with a double-barreled attack, but there isn’t a 10 in New Zealand with the size and defensive reliability of Farrell that could play that role.
If the All Blacks want some balance in the midfield it will be at centre where they can pick a ball-playing midfielder and luckily they have a plethora of them. This means the one man that risks getting squeezed out is Ryan Crotty – despite recommitting to NZR on a one-year deal. He does currently provide that balance but his play dipped last year at international level and with rising stars in New Zealand’s centre stocks, one more year might be a bridge too far. Although Williams is older at 32-years-old, he is a superior athlete and doesn’t require as much speed as a centre does.
At Super level, the Crusaders prefer Crotty at 12 with the young Jack Goodhue favoured at centre. Presumably, the athleticism of youth gives Goodhue the nod, allowing Crotty to defend inside and avoid matchups against more athletic opposition. At international level, this may continue to become too much of an ask. If Crotty shows more signs of slowing in 2018, it might be time to build a new midfield combination around Williams.
Goodhue has been outstanding in one and half seasons of Super Rugby and is firmly in contention to partner with Williams. His line running is astute and he would find plenty of lanes to hit outside of Williams. His passing game would enable the All Blacks to still get enough quality ball to wings like Ioane. Their skill sets complement each other and would be my preferred pairing.
Anton Lienart-Brown is another top-level centre playing at a high level in Super Rugby. He has the most line breaks (9) and line break assists (8) of the bunch. His passing abilities are similar to Goodhue, with excellent catch-pass ability.
The most surprising contender is the Highlanders Rob Thompson who statistically has been one of the best centres this season in Super Rugby. He has the third-best tackle success rate (86.8%) of the New Zealand centres, a touch behind Lienert-Brown (87.0%) and Goodhue (87.65%). In attack, he has registered five try assists and two tries, along with six line breaks and eight line break assists which is the highest output of any New Zealand centre. His dynamic short range kicking game has been integral to the Highlanders play.
Of the emerging bunch, it’s hard to split the three. They each offer slightly different strengths but all have great defence and ball-playing ability. Matt Proctor is a fourth option but surprisingly has a lower tackle success rate and hasn’t had the time on the field that the others have.
Don’t be surprised to see Williams partner with a new centre before the Rugby World Cup, at the very least as a backup trial and at most a replacement for Crotty.