The All Blacks must opt for the promise of Ngani Laumape or the redemption of Malakai Fekitoa
STEVE HANSEN has never been afraid of chucking players in the deep end and seeing if they can swim. However, sometimes the chucking is taken out of his hands – as with Sonny Bill Williams seeing red in last week’s 24-21 Lions win.
Williams is out of the decider after a citing commission judged that his dangerous play – a shoulder charge on the head of Anthony Watson – was worthy of a four-week ban. It is worth noting that Williams has used his shoulders like this before.
Now Hansen and his crew have a tough selection decision to make. With Ryan Crotty also out, they have drafted in Malakai Fekitoa to the squad, but they may consider sticking with Ngani Laumape, who came off the bench to plug a SBW-shaped hole in midfield, making his All Blacks debut in the process.
Speaking of how unfortunate it was for Laumape to start his international career like this, All Blacks assistant Ian Foster said: “What a tough way to start your test career; to come in and have to do your role and someone else’s. I think in those circumstances he did really well. I would like to think whilst he’ll be pretty disappointed with the result he should be proud of what he did out there. He was still able to express himself and do what he likes doing.
“Like the rest of the team there will be some lessons that when you drop a man it requires a slightly different focus in some areas. We didn’t get that 100% right obviously but he should be pretty proud of his first game.
“Ngani’s performance proved he was working hard even when he wasn’t in the group.”
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It is difficult to put a black mark against a player’s name when filling in for a red carded colleague, even if he was at fault in the build-up to Conor Murray’s try.
The one constant in all of this is Anton Lienert-Brown. It sound very un-All Black to say that a 22-year-old centre holds the key to their backline clicking, yet a lot of pressure now falls on his shoulders.
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Fekitoa and Lienert-Brown both started in the centre for the All Blacks’ 21-9 win over Ireland in November, a result that avenged their loss in Chicago a few weeks previous. Which means there is a level of understanding there. But with the Lions thriving with their spiced-up backline, with Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell at ten and 12, perhaps taking a leap will be good for the game. Perhaps the All Blacks will fancy seeing how destructive their new League convert can be with a full team on the field.
With the series coming down to a one-off decider at Eden Park, the stage is set for unexpected heroes on either side. The All Blacks may well see the former New Zealand Warriors star as that man. Or they can allow Fekitoa, discarded before the run-in by the All Blacks – as rumours also circled that the short-on-form centre is off to Toulon – to redeem himself and re-enact the heroics of last November.