All Blacks still struggling to replace colossal Kaino
Steve Hansen might be tempted to go back to the future as he continues to try to fill the gaping hole he has at blindside flanker.
Hansen has handed the No6 jersey to Vaea Fifita, Liam Squire and, briefly last year, Shannon Frizell since Jerome Kaino played in the third and final test against the Lions in 2017.
Kaino returned to play the Barbarians later that year, but that series against the British and Irish brought the curtain down on a staggeringly successful test career.
Kaino won 81 test caps, a figure that would have exceeded 100 had he not spent 2012 and 2013 playing in Japan, and he was a key part of the All Blacks teams that won the World Cup in 2011 and 2015.
He deserves to sit alongside the greats who retired from test rugby at that 2015 tournament - Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Keven Melamu and Tony Woodcock.
Certainly his influence on the field was at least as significant as all of theirs. It remains an injustice he was not named player of the tournament in 2011.
Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to Kaino is that Hansen continues to struggle to find a long term successor at blindside flanker.
Squire was the front runner but injuries have limited his game time, his confidence dropped, he took time out from Super Rugby due to personal issues and then turned down the All Blacks because he didn’t feel he was ready for test rugby.
Fifita was good, but not great against the Pumas and Frizell was playing club rugby in Nelson on Saturday.
Hansen must be tempted to take a bit of a gamble as he looks at his options for this year’s World Cup.
He’s already ruled out playing Sam Cane and Ardie Savea together on the flanks, but a possible solution is close to hand.
Kieran Read has started 109 of his 118 tests at No8 and, while he’s not a familiar sight on the blindside, it’s not a position he’s unfamiliar with.
His test debut against Scotland in 2008 was at six and he started there against France the following year.
A couple of his seven appearances off the bench were also to replace Kaino.
He has the attributes to play there as, like Kaino, he is a strong defender and good in the lineout.
Some say he is a fading star at No8 and he does seem to have lost a bit of his spark since back surgery sidelined him for much of last year.
But it needs to be noted his duties have changed at No8, too.
In the early years of his All Blacks career, Read was encouraged to play wide, to roam out near Julian Savea with the pair often laying on tries for each other.
In recent years he’s been brought in closer and asked to do more grind in and around the rucks.
That’s what happens when blokes like Kaino and McCaw leave a team. Adjustments have to be made.
The result is that Read’s work is less visible, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less important. In fact, the reverse could be argued.
It’s because of Read that others have been able to feature in space.
This supports my belief Read could make a smooth shift to blindside, allowing Savea to start at No8 as he did in the patchy 20-16 win against Argentina to open the All Blacks rugby Championship account.
Usually I’m loathe to play someone out of their usual position - especially at World Cups.
At three consecutive tournaments (1999, 2003, and 2007) the All Blacks used a fullback at centre in key games and it backfired.
It’s why I hope Scott Barrett is seen and used as a lock who can cover blindside.
And yes, I realise it’s hypocritical to then suggest Read should move from No8 to blindside, but it truly does seem the best solution to a niggly problem.
Especially as Savea has the ball skills, speed, power and leg drive to be incredibly effective off the back of the scrum.
And, with Read leaving after the World Cup, Savea looms as the long term option at No8 - especially if Cane remains fit, plays as he is playing and captains the team, as he seems sure to do next year with Sam Whitelock away on sabbatical.
The only concern with starting Savea is that it robs the All Blacks of considerable impact off the bench and, in turn, creates another issue for Hansen to solve there.
Hansen said the Argentina test was like winning Lotto because the Crusaders-less All Blacks were put through their paces, under pressure, and emerged with a win, albeit a rusty one.
It did answer some of the questions that have vexed All Blacks fans and possibly the coaches, too, but not everything is settled.
Ngani Laumape was good at second five but remains at the World Cup mercy of the brittle Sonny Bill Williams.
Partick Tuipulotu is still the fourth best lock (at best) and will struggle to force the selectors to take four locks to the World Cup.
Jordie Barrett is a good player but his best use could be off the bench.
There will still be intense debate as to whether Beauden Barrett or Richie Mo’unga should start at first five - and to be fair those in either camp will probably never move tents.
And Ben Smith needs games. He has barely played in the last few months after tearing his hamstring with the Highlanders, but should get better with game time.
The same, it must be hoped, applies to the All Blacks.
The views of the author are not necessarily endorsed by Canon.
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