We’re less than two months away until the first test-match of the British and Irish Lions series, and with the All Blacks squad yet to be announced, the midfield pairing remains an uncertainty.
Since the departure of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, who made-up perhaps one of the best centre-pairings the game has seen, the All Blacks have yet to find the same level of consistency and cohesion from the positions.
Heading into the Lions series, the three players most likely fighting for a spot in the midfield are Ryan Crotty, Malakai Fekitoa and Anton Lienert-Brown.
Ryan Crotty was seen as the incumbent second-five, and has been his ever-consistent best for the high-flying Crusaders this Super Rugby season. He is a very steady player, and someone who makes very little mistakes, and you can see why Steven Hanson has opted to go with the twenty-six cap All Black.
Crotty allows those around him to thrive by being a support player, as opposed to being the one to spark the attack.
However, his lack of impact on attack can often cause him to go missing the games. Unlike his predecessor in Nonu, Crotty struggles to impose himself on the defence.
Despite his Crusaders try-scoring form this season, Crotty has yet to cross the white line and has only one try-assist to his name.
Malakai Fekitoa is someone of immense talent, but has lacked the consistency to nail down an All Black starting spot. After falling out of favour in Auckland, the Tongan-born player had a break-out season for the Highlanders in 2014 and was a key-member of the 2015 title-winning side.
His form lead to an All Black call-up and it had seemed a replacement for the pending departure of Conrad Smith had been found.
However, in the last two years, Fekitoa has since failed to live up the form he previously showcased, and saw him be dropped from the All Blacks last year for several matches. Fekitoa possesses game-breaking ability, and certainly has the ‘x-factor’, but is susceptible to making costly errors, often from trying too hard.
Following the first few games of Super Rugby this season, it had seemed that much of the same could be expected from Fekitoa. However, over the last few games, he has shown glimpses of form that saw him earn his first All Blacks call-up.
Anton Lienert-Brown was a surprise call-up to the All Blacks Rugby Championship squad, following an injury to Sonny-Bill Williams. However, the Waikato man took the chance with both hands, impressing enough to win himself nine caps.
After making his debut for the Chiefs in 2014, Lienert-Brown has gone from strength to strength, impressing with distributing skills, defence and high-level of consistency.
Much like Crotty, Lienert-Brown is a solid player, who despite being just twenty-two years old, makes very little mistakes. However, unlike Crotty, Lienert-Brown provides slightly more on attack and has been one of the better players for the Chiefs this season.
While these three are the front-runners heading into the Lions series, there are a couple of guys who could find themselves in the squad, if not starting.
Sonny-Bill Williams will be in the All Blacks squad for the upcoming Lions series, that I am very confident of. However, it’s the impact he will have, or be allowed to have that will be interesting. SBW has only just returned from a serious injury and has had limited game time for the Blues this season. But his experience and previous performances in the black jumper that should see him included, and most likely feature in the match-day squad.
Ngani Laumape has been in incredible form for the Hurricanes the season. The second-five has racked up almost six-hundred meters with the ball, twenty-two clean breaks and twenty-nine defenders beaten. Not to mention his eleven tries, three assists and has a better tackle-success rate than of any of the others previously mentioned. While he remains unlikely selection, he could be a serious bolter in a position not yet nailed down by anyone just yet.
The British and Irish Lions pose a sizable threat to the All Blacks, so expect Steve Hanson to go with the tried and tested. Crotty and Fekitoa should see themselves in the starting side, with Lienert-Brown an outside chance.