Who Should Be the All Blacks Starting Back 3 for Rugby Championship?

Jeff Cheshire@@jeff_cheshireAnalyst IIAugust 8, 2014

HAMILTON, NEW ZEALAND - SEPTEMBER 07: Ben Smith of New Zealand celebrates with teammate Israel Dagg after a try during the Rugby Championship between the New Zealand All Blacks and Argentina at Waikato Stadium on September 7, 2013 in Hamilton, New Zealand.  (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)
Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images

There is currently a logjam in the All Blacks back three. They boast five quality options in Ben Smith, Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Charles Piutau and Julian Savea. All would walk into any other international team. But the All Blacks cannot play them all. It is a good problem to have, but no one seems to be able to agree just what the best combination is. 

Savea has to be the first player to fill one of the spots. It is not that he is any better than the others, but he brings different things. While the others will beat you with speed, skill and vision, Savea can also beat you with strength and power. He is an option to come into the line to crash the ball and attract defenders. On the outside, he can finish with little room and knows how to find his way to the try line.

He will fill the left wing spot. Not only is this obviously his preferred wing, it also requires him to field less high kicks. Kicking down the left wingers side provides a more awkward angle for right-footed kickers, meaning they will tend to place their kicks down the other wing more accurately and will look to kick up this line more often.

Undoubtedly he has improved under the high ball. He is no longer a liability in this area and you can remain reasonably confident he will take whatever is sent in his direction. But the other options are just better in this department. Naturally they should be positioned where their skill sets will be employed better.

Julian Savea can beat his man with strength and power as well as speed and skill.
Julian Savea can beat his man with strength and power as well as speed and skill.Phil Walter/Getty Images

The second player that must be picked is Ben Smith. He has been the form outside back of Super Rugby over the past two years and deserves a place. The only question is: Where should he play?

Some will claim that Smith is a better fullback than wing. Others may point to his versatility and play him wherever he fits, depending on whether they would rather have Jane or Dagg alongside him.

The best approach should be to not look at one or the other, but to look at which is the best overall option, even if it means playing an individual in a position where he may be slightly less effective.

There are merits in both combinations. Dagg undoubtedly has the best boot of the three. He posses a long punt and is capable of executing it under immense pressure on his own goal line. The All Blacks have used this many a time in recent years to get themselves out of trouble, often opting for the boot of Dagg over Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden or Beauden Barrett.

His attacking abilities are well-known, although he has struggled in this department over the past two years. While he will still show glimpses of his ability to break the line and create chances, he does not do so with the same consistency of 2010 or 2011.

Defensively, he is the weakest of the group too. When covering, he does not have as good positional play as Smith, while also falling off too many tackles too easily.

Despite his drawbacks, he is still a quality option. He will take the bombs sent his way, he attracts the attention of the defence and is capable of putting on a kicking masterclass.

Israel Dagg has a very good kicking game.
Israel Dagg has a very good kicking game.David Rogers/Getty Images

Smith's strengths come in his ability with ball in hand. He has an adequate boot, but for the most part, he is a player you want to see running the ball. His eye for a gap, speed off the mark and ability to step out of tackles make him the most dangerous counter-attacking player in the world.

From fullback he is able to constantly threaten, coming in to the line off set-play and having more room on the counter. On the wing, he is undoubtedly a good finisher, but he does not have the same room to work with, and his abilities are largely wasted.

As a defensive player, he works hard and is the best tackler of the group, both in the line and when covering. Under the high ball, he is much improved as well. While he used to attack the ball aggressively, he had poor technique and rarely looked like actually catching it. Now, his eyes remain on the ball, his hands stay high and he uses his body and legs as a shield to create distance between himself and his opponent. 

Ben Smith's defensive game is outstanding.
Ben Smith's defensive game is outstanding.David Rogers/Getty Images

It is a technique that has been a hallmark of Cory Jane's game over the past five years. No one is better than Jane under the high ball, and having him on your right wing is a great way negate an opposition who is going to try to apply pressure through a kicking game.

He is well and truly a right winger now, as opposed to a fullback. His best attribute is his left-hand fend, which is deadly when he gets on the outside. Along with this, he possesses a high skill level and still has the speed to both finish and set up tries.

Cory Jane has the best left-hand fend going around.
Cory Jane has the best left-hand fend going around.Chris Hyde/Getty Images

The other option, of course, is Charles Piutau. Piutau is undoubtedly a class player. He's lethal when attacking from fullback and is a hard worker who will chase everything on the wing. But he is just not yet quite as good as the others, although he is not far away, and his time will come sooner rather than later.

So who should they choose?

Savea is the clear option on the left wing. Smith, meanwhile, is undoubtedly a better fullback than winger.

At fullback, he provides more spark than Dagg, and his class showed when he stepped into fullback for the second and third Tests against England in June. He may not have the same kicking game and perhaps not quite as good a skill set, but he remains better than most in both of these areas.

In contrast, Jane can do most of what Smith does on the wing. Smith is faster and more threatening, but Jane is better fielding bombs and has more experience playing the position, while still remaining a quality attacking player.

It depends on what type of game you want to play. The All Blacks should play to their strengths and look to set themselves apart from their opponents. To do this, they should make use of their attacking flair, quick ball and high skill level to constantly threaten.

Using this logic, the back three of Smith, Jane and Savea should be used first. This offers a good balance and allows them to get the most out of Smith.

Dagg can still be brought off the bench to add spark or to steady the ship in a tight game. 

The worst that is going to happen is they just revert back to using Dagg, Smith and Savea. 

It is worth a go. But in all honesty, they could choose any combination of their group of five, and they will have a back three to be feared by any opponent.