Reece shaping path to Rugby World Cup stardom
Canon Rugby in Focus: A controversial selection is on track to be the All Blacks' X-factor star at the Rugby World Cup.
Sevu Reece looms as the Nehe Milner-Skudder revelation of this year’s Rugby World Cup.
The Crusaders wing, who sparked renewed controversy when he was named in the squad because of his discharge without conviction for assaulting a woman last year, will make his All Blacks debut against Argentina in Buenos Aires.
He’s one of five uncapped players in the 23 but the only one in a playing XV that is amazingly experienced and able considering the bulk of the Crusaders' All Blacks were left at home to rest.
Four years ago Milner-Skudder made his test debut against Australia in August and went on to star at the World Cup two months later, capping that success by being World Rugby’s break-through player of the year.
Reece, who has already enjoyed a superb season with the Crusaders, could well do the same.
Steve Hansen calls him a pocket rocket. He is that, and one with an uncanny ability to score tries.
He scored one late in the Super season from a chip kick that went wrong, yet came off an opposition player and bounced into his hands with the try line open.
Good players somehow have luck fall their way like that.
Reece is part of a reasonably predictable starting XV given the likes of Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor and Joe Moody are at home, and Ryan Crotty and Scott Barrett are injured.
The pack, which will be truly tested by the Pumas, has a strong spine with Dane Coles at hooker, Brodie Retalick at lock and Sam Cane and Ardie Savea in the loose forwards.
It will be fascinating to see how Savea goes at No8. That, surely, is where his test future lies as Read is leaving New Zealand after the World Cup, with Cane poised to take over as captain, as he will on Sunday.
Savea has the pace and skill to be a wonderful No8 and his leg drive will make him a huge threat off the back of scrums, especially close to the line.
Another with a big opportunity is Ngani Laumape, who should be a shoo-in for the World Cup squad if the injury prone Sonny Bill Williams fails to get fit.
Hansen has admitted he is worried about Williams’ durability and Laumape, who is seven years younger, just has to keep doing what he’s been doing with the Hurricanes to book his ticket to Japan.
His combination with Anton Lienert-Brown will be interesting, especially on defence, and if they are initially closed down on attack.
How they stay connected and work through problems will be something Hansen keeps a close eye on.
This team is ideal for Hansen ahead of the World Cup. It combines experience with new faces, includes several new combinations and has a key player - Savea - in a new spot (internationally).
And in typical Hansen fashion he is giving several players their first start, or a chance to add to the few caps they already have, via the bench.
Of them, Liam Coltman has a huge battle on his hands to be the third hooker and Brad Weber needs to show his form with the Chiefs can transfer beyond Super Rugby.
Luke Jacobson and Braydon Ennor are also outside chances to get to Japan provided they too can show they can cope with the intensity of test rugby.
The recent cricket World Cup saw the Blackcaps selections and lack of squad rotation through pool play criticised, while the Silver Ferns have been heavy in rotation through the early games of the netball World Cup.
Giving everyone a crack can be vexed.
Graham Henry overplayed rotation in 2007, failing to settle on his top XV from a squad lacking match fitness - a mistake he didn’t make in 2011 and that Hansen avoided in 2015.
The All Blacks' three World Cup triumphs have seen largely the same team (injuries permitting in 2011) used for all but one of the pool games and through the playoffs.
Ideally, Hansen will start his favoured team in the opening match against South Africa and then give key players a rest against either Canada, Namibia or Italy.
That is why this match against Argentina - and the other games in the Rugby Championship - are so important.
They are a chance to build depth, test combinations and to try things, while at the same time, of course, win the rugby game.
The views of the author are not necessarily endorsed by Canon.