Mark Reason: Matt Proctor can broaden the All Blacks’ horizons

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is nicknamed Shag.


All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is nicknamed Shag.

OPINION: They should call it Shagball.

There was much mockery last year when the Lions came to town. They said Warren Gatland could only play one way. They said he always had a basher at 12. Then Gatland went and selected Ben Te’o for the first test. The man just couldn’t get away from Warrenball, no matter how cross he got when asked the question.

Of course the Lions did change, but you suspect the pressure for change came as much from the senior players as it did from Gatland. Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell wanted to play together and so it came to pass. And suddenly the Lions were playing a whole lot smarter.

The All Blacks have never truly replaced Ma'a Nonu because he was such a superb ball carrier.


The All Blacks have never truly replaced Ma’a Nonu because he was such a superb ball carrier.

We should have looked in the mirror. The All Blacks have been playing a refined version of Warrenball since 2007. Ever since Graham Henry fell out with Aaron Mauger and for some lunatic reason selected a midfield of Luke McAlister and Mils Muliaina in that visceral loss to France, the All Blacks have played Grahamball followed by Shagball.

The sight of Mauger sitting in his suit and tie in the stand on that fateful day in Cardiff in 2007 proved more prophetic than we could have imagined at the time. For the past 11 years ‘Mauger’ has been stuck in that same seat in the stand. The All Blacks will not select a playmaker at 12.

Of course when you have as good a basher as Ma’a Nonu at 12, with the cerebral Conrad Smith to do the patchwork outside, you can understand the thinking. Why split up such a tremendous combination. But since Smith and Nonu have departed, the All Blacks have tried to play the same way with less and less success. They are not winning matches through the potency of their midfield attack.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that Beauden Barrett will always struggle to play with his hips square to the posts. His best year as an All Blacks, in 2016, came when Wayne Smith spent 12 months squaring him up. In 2017 Hansen decided he would take over the Barrett project and improve his game management. Barrett’s game went backwards because you cannot be tactically aware if your head is always pointing sideways.

The All Blacks haven't had a playmaker at No 12 since Aaron Mauger.


The All Blacks haven’t had a playmaker at No 12 since Aaron Mauger.

At top international level both Sonny Bill Williams and Ngani Laumape, the All Blacks key bashers, struggle to make the dents that they do at Super Rugby level. The defences are better, as even a scratch Lions team showed, Barrett’s body shape and mediocre passing mean that Laumape and SBW don’t hit the ball with the timing they need to make waves,

And the second point, of course, is that SBW, a 32-year-old with a long history of injuries, and Laumape are neither up to the level of Nonu as a runner. Why should they be. Not many racehorses are as good as Phar Lap.

But these issues mean that Hansen and his team need to expand their midfield horizons during the French series. It is not as if they are short of options. The Super Rugby teams are playing a huge variety of football in midfield. Mauger at the Highlanders and Ronan O’Gara supplemented team at the Crusaders are doing some great coaching work. They are constantly changing the look at 10 and 12 and bamboozling a lot of defences.

Hurricanes centre Matt Proctor has pace and intelligence.


Hurricanes centre Matt Proctor has pace and intelligence.

To this end I would love to see Hansen select Richie Mo’unga in the squad along with five players in midfield. They would be Ryan Crotty and SBW/Laumape at 12 and Jack Goodhue, Matt Proctor at 13 with Anton Lienert-Brown as the floater.

Crotty is now easily the best 12 in New Zealand. And in some ways he does things that remind you of Mauger. He will step into the 10 position to allow Mo’unga to use his pace and brilliant passing game coming round the back. But Crotty will also straighten the line (as Mo’unga does) as well as having a more than  handy cross kick.

Goodhue and Proctor are both players that any other team in the world would kill for. Joe Schmidt would rush either into his Ireland 13 jersey before you could shave the excess froth off the top of a pint of stout.

But let’s talk about Proctor, here, because he is the one who has not yet made an All Blacks squad. His coach Chris Boyd thinks that Proctor is the best 13 now in the country. He calls him the glue that holds the Hurricanes together.

There are a lot of reasons for this. Proctor is the wind in the Canes rush defence. He pushes up hard on the outside making the read on when to rush the pass or hold off. He is also one of the shrewdest members of the scramble defence. Time and again he will hold out on the support runner, waiting for his tacklers to get across to the inside man.

Proctor is also not shy of getting under the skin of the opposition big beasts. Against the Chiefs he had a stoush with both Brodie Retallick and Damian McKenzie. Against the Blues he and SBW had a bit of ‘how’s your father.’ His defence in the second half against the Blues defused a couple of tries and he finished the match with the try of a man who doesn’t stop running in support.

We also saw his considerable skills in attack last week against the Lions. The 24-year-old clearly learned a lot from Smith in his final years. Ruan Combrinck, the Lions wing, will still be having nightmares about the 24-year-old Proctor.

A heads-up peek caught Combrinck drifting in the first half. Proctor immediately stepped into the hole and was gone to set up a try for his inside runner. In the second half Combrinck was more reluctant to drift and so Proctor pulled him in by showing a pass and taking a couple of steps as if he had thrown a dummy. When the South African had taken the bait, Proctor put his wing in for the try.

Of course Proctor is not quite the footballer yet that Smith was, but he does have a bit more gas and that is quite an asset. Assistant coach Jason Holland stresses the work that Proctor does off the ball.

Head coach Boyd said, “Personally, I think he’s the best centre in New Zealand. He’s definitely the best defensive centre. Incredible workrate, makes great reads. You often don’t see the work that Matty does [but] when you go back and have a look at the footage the next day, you just see how many times he’s involved in rucks and tidying things up and cleaning things up. He’s a real glue guy for us. A real glue guy.”

Hopefully Proctor’s name is now stuck in Hansen’s head because the All Blacks need to evolve again before next year’s World Cup. There was a pass inside Proctor’s 22 under intense pressure out of the back of the hand and a little chip through against the Lions that both spoke of higher things. Now he just needs to stay free of long term injuries.

I would love to see an All Black back line of Aaron Smith, Mo’unga, Ioane, Crotty, Proctor/Goodhue, Ben Smith, Beauden Barrett. Hansen started his tenure as a progressive selector, but he and others have become stuck in their ways. There is a whiff of favouritism about the place.

Let’s hope the All Blacks are now ready to move on.

 – Stuff

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