Now that the departure of Sonny Bill Williams has been confirmed, the All Black selectors must settle upon a long term replacement for his vacant position at inside centre.
It is difficult to imagine the coaching staff punting on anyone other than Ma’a Nonu for the upcoming Rugby Championship, considering his experience as a top player at the international level.
Unfortunately, Nonu has displayed indifferent form to say the least in Super Rugby this season. It is all very well and good to say that he saves his best for the black jersey, but eventually form must trump reputation in the selectors’ minds.
At thirty, the Blues’ number twelve is fast approaching his twilight years as a rugby player. It is highly doubtful that Nonu will be around for long enough to serve as Williams’ replacement in the long term.
However, the shortage of viable alternatives to Nonu is actually quite surprising. At the beginning of the year New Zealand boasted unrivalled midfield depth, but the departure of Williams and injuries to other prominent players have hollowed out the All Blacks’ options.
Richard Kahui, Isaia Toeava, Colin Slade, Shaun Treeby and Tamati Ellison all could have been considered for the inside centre position, but all have been forced to endure a premature end to the season through injury.
That leaves just a trifecta of specialist midfielders who could plausibly be picked ahead of Nonu: Robbie Fruean, Tim Bateman and Ryan Crotty.
Fruean boasts more line breaks than any other player in Super Rugby this season, and as an intimidating ball-runner he could provide the All Blacks with a similar style of play to Nonu.
But Robbie has a tendency to drift in and out of games. One week he is the most dominant player on the paddock, and the next he manages to escape notice altogether. New Zealand will be reluctant to select a sporadic performer for such a pivotal position.
It must also be remembered that Fruean is a natural outside centre who almost never slots in at twelve for Canterbury. This shows up in his passing game, which is decidedly sub par. He needs to spend a season working intensively on his distribution skills, much like Nonu did several years ago.
Bateman and Crotty are very similar to each other, and are the polar opposite of Fruean and Nonu in style. They are solid, dependable and industrious, with an acceptable proficiency in all basic skills.
Neither would ever strike fear into the heart of an opposition player. Next to the hulking figures of Nonu and Fruean, these two guys look decidedly unremarkable. You have to question whether they bring enough to the table to warrant All Black selection.
New Zealand’s only other alternative is to fill the inside centre position with someone who normally plays at flyhalf. Dan Carter has worn the number twelve jersey before, and shifting him outside would relieve the pressure on his suspect groin by allowing him to kick less.
But surely it would be lunacy to move the best ten in the world out of position. Canterbury tried that earlier this year and Carter became virtually invisible as a result. The ball has to be in Daniel’s hands as often as possible, which means that he must be kept at flyhalf.
Perhaps Aaron Cruden or Beauden Barrett could be slotted into the twelve jersey? Both possess formidable running games, both have excellent distributive skills and both can provide the All Blacks with a second kicking option.
Problems would arise without the ball, however. High class teams are always reluctant to weaken their defense in midfield, and these two players are not outstanding tacklers.
So once again we come back to Nonu. If he does indeed regain his place in the national side he will have done so by default. All of his rivals are either injured, average, flawed or chasing the big bucks in Japan.
Kiwi fans can only hope that Nonu lifts his level of play for international competition yet again.