With the Lions touching down on NZ soil at long last, the talkback radio stations have been abuzz with every topic around the tour imaginable; Which of the provinces will put up the best fight? Which scrum will dominate the other? Who of the Lions squad will break curfew first? Which players can the All Blacks not afford to lose to injury?
And it was the latter question that got my attention – namely because it caused me the greatest amount of anxiety of all the questions asked. To answer, I will rank the top five players in my view that the All Blacks must have playing in order to secure a series win.
5. Kieran Read
Kieran Read’s Super Rugby form this year has been disrupted by a thumb break that will have his remaining fingers crossed at the prospect of him returning in time. It’s not distinctly his skills or size that define his presence on the field – it's his decision to throw a 50/50 pass behind his back to a roaming Dane Coles freeing him up to score untouched; that is what makes Kieran Read a masterclass player and captain.
For when a captain is willing to push their own attacking ability to its maximum potential, then the flow on effect is that every player around them has the confidence to do the same.
Kieran’s impact on the field cannot simply be measured by his own actions, but the influence those very actions have on the team. Without him, a player with a similar skill level on paper will step up, such as Jerome Kaino or Liam Squire, but neither command the same lift in performance from the players around them.
4. Dane Coles
There is no doubt in my mind that what he brings to the All Black jersey in the Hooker position is far and above any of the back-up contenders we have in the ranks. However, he is looking increasingly set to miss the Lions tests. But i'll continue...
While he wears Number 2, it is ironically his ability to show the skill set of so many other positions that secures his presence as being so critical. The All Blacks game plan utilises his deceptive pace and tackle breaking strength, meaning he so often finds himself as the last set of hands out wide touching down for the try. On top of this, he still manages to do the dirty work in the rucks and is a near-guarantee in the set piece.
Just check out this pace - a huge loss if he isn't fit this tour.
3. Ben Smith
They say when Ben Smith dropped the ball on his first touch as an All Black that it was the last mistake he made in the Black jersey. The ‘howler’ moments that so often blight a fullback’s entire game are so few and far between with this guy that the opposition are forced to look for weaknesses elsewhere.
Every tackle, every busting run, every interview – all just builds a picture of this guy being the ultimate team man. He lives and breathes for New Zealand, and that is reflected in his vice-captaincy position.
While I don’t doubt the likes of Israel Dagg or Damian Mackenzie could fill in as capable cover, there is a feeling of comfort that one gets when Ben Smith puts on the Black jersey, and it would be a safe bet that a contrasting feeling of discomfort is felt by his opposing players.
1 & 2. Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick
Contrary to popular belief that the All Black hopes lie with the man wearing the number 10 jersey and the fortune of his kicking boots, it's my view that the boys in the second row, shape the All Blacks’ fortunes.
Every run with ball in hand these two make, achieve unentitled extra metres. These runs won’t necessarily solely break the line open, but cumulatively, these metres and these runs add up and conversely wear defenders down.
And it is this wearing down of the opposition and the subsequent gaps that form as a result, which can be credited to the effort of these two.
You won’t see either of these two players at the top of any tries scored or tackles broken statistics, but if you delve into the carries made and tackles completed numbers, here you will find two of the hardest workers in the All Blacks team.
Their work isn’t the glamorous side of rugby – there aren’t any highlight reels of these guys signing the camera lens, but if you’re impressed by securing the ball in the ruck and watching a wave of immovable defense, then track these two during any match they play. You will quickly realise why these two are absolutely pivotal in our chances against the Lions.
Bring on the first test!