New Zealand Rugby: Who Will Be the All Blacks Understudy to Daniel Carter?
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It was a question posed early on by many: Who will fill the No. 10 jersey should Daniel Carter be unavailable during the Rugby World Cup? While there are a bunch of contenders, the answer to the question is still as unclear as it was six months ago.
The obvious choice would be the Highlanders marquee signing Colin Slade. He has a very good all round game and possesses the ability to kick, run and pass effectively.
Despite a lack of experience at test match level, he controlled the second half in last years third Bledisloe Cup test well and showed he has the head for the game. But it may not be as simple as that. Slade has already broken his jaw twice this season and after playing only a handful of games, will not return for the rest of the Super Rugby season.
He also carries a groin injury that could be a long term problem if he doesn't get it right. This could be enough to make him unavailable for the All Blacks come World Cup time.
So who to then? Stephen Donald, Luke McAlister, Aaron Cruden and Stephen Brett are the four obvious contenders. All have their merits, but none bring the same confidence that Carter and Slade bring to the table.
Of these four, Donald has the most experience in the No. 10 jumper at test match level. He has an impressive record at provincial and Super Rugby level, but for one reason or another has failed to bring this to the international stage.
In Super Rugby he is a dangerous runner, a reasonable kicker and a good director of a dangerous backline.
However test-match rugby is a whole new ball game and there have been numerous players that have been superstars at lower levels that have struggled to cope at the higher level. Donald certainly falls into this category, playing some truly forgettable games in the black jersey.
Should Slade be unavailable, who would your back up to Daniel Carter be?
The second candidate mentioned was Luke McAlister. He has 30 test caps making him the most experienced of the four contenders, however most of these caps come wearing the No. 12 jersey which doesn't always translate to being comfortable wearing 10.
The main plus for McAlister is his kicking. He is without doubt the most consistent goal kicker of the contenders which could be the difference between a win and a loss in a close game. He can be dangerous on attack, but can tend to take wrong options, often kicking good attacking ball.
Likewise, he can be found wanting in defence at times, going too high in tackles, shown by the number of times he has suffered from broken jaws.
The next contender comes in the youngster Aaron Cruden. After being proclaimed as the next big thing after a stellar tournament with the New Zealand Under 20's, Cruden was promoted into the Manawatu ITM Cup side and then the Hurricanes.
He was then given an All Blacks call up for last years Tri-Nations. At times he showed glimpses of the talent he has been said to possess. But the simple facts are that it's just too big a step up from playing Under 20's to playing international rugby. The speed and physicality of the game was where he struggled the most and his tactical kicking has been average at best.
So on to our fourth and final candidate, Stephen Brett. Brett is the only one of these four to have never played for the All Blacks and many people may question his inclusion on this list. But his recent form has been the best of any of the contenders for the position.
He has a very good running game, which he has used to put the dangerous Blues backline into space and has proved hard to stop. Again, his kicking is suspect and his inclusion in the team would mean another goal kicker would have to be present.
So then. Who to take? At this stage Slade would be the man provided he is available.
But what if he's not?
None of the four men's cases bring the confidence one would want from an All Black first five.
It seems unlikely that they will go back to Cruden and Brett has confirmed that the All Blacks coaches have not talked to him, indicating he isn't in the mix.
Therefore it comes down to McAlister and Donald.
Personally I think McAlister edges out Donald due to having a better kicking game, but I think the All Black selectors will go with Donald.
Donald has been tried before and while not always successful, at least has some experience at test match level. In the past, the selectors have fallen back on Donald when unsure who to go with and it wouldn't be a surprise to seem them do it again. Only this time, don't expect them to use him unless absolutely necessary.
At a time where New Zealand rugby is so strong, this is the one position that they are struggling to fill. In the four years since the last World Cup there hasn't been one obvious candidate put their hand up and should Colin Slade not be available, every person in New Zealand will be praying that Daniel Carter doesn't succumb to injury between now and October.
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