With the New Zealand v French test series tickets going on sale last week, fans are looking ahead to the June Internationals already. And while Super Rugby form is not yet being adjudged completely, the most discussed area of contention involves two men: TJ Perenara and Aaron Smith.
Perenara is the Wellington Hurricanes halfback, one of the most attacking men in Super Rugby. Having just reached 100 caps for his beloved ‘Canes, he is a lion who can ‘run the ship’ but also, attack with force of purpose.
Then there is Smith, the wonderful and elusive halfback of the Otago Highlanders team. Adored for his sensational pass, and in some fans eyes, the first pick. He too has aquired 100 caps for the ‘Landers side, and can at times be the most instrumental player on the park.
Rugby fans might see an natural argument being geographically based, yet a scrum halves skill-set means that each player offers more than just ‘catch and pass’. And as such, Last Word on Rugby consider the argument in 2018.
TJ Perenara v Aaron Smith
The most discussed position of attack in any rugby union side, is normally from the halfbacks position. The director, the main instrument of much of a teams attack. That is clearly known both in New Zealand rugby, as much across the rugby globe.
Selection today is for a starting player, who can co-ordinate planned attack. All week, that person is surrounded by his group of backs and his pack of forwards. The go-between and often communicator of plays and set-piece. So he must command respect and be an inspirational figure. The bench player too has an integral role, but anyone will admit ‘they want to start’.
And TJ Perenara is pushing extremely hard to ‘start’ ahead of Aaron Smith in the June International test series [on form]. He is currently in an green patch of form, which has coincided with the Hurricane player achieving 100 caps.
So if fans or indeed national selectors need evidence of his recent claim for the place as starting halfback, then his display in Melbourne proved that. Perenara is the consummate number nine; both in directing play and in orchestrating attack–often finishing off try scoring movements, by following the advanced play with vigorous conviction.
A master in setting up tries too, Perenara has a hand in much of the ‘Canes play, alongside Beauden Barrett. And in the recent REBvHUR match, he delivered his key role in another superb performance.
If there are measures to compare the two men, then evidence shows that TJ Perenara has become an equal of his adversary. As his team continue to lead the New Zealand conference, Perenara is pushing extremely hard to ‘start’ ahead of Aaron Smith in June 2018.
Highlanders halfback is the measure for International player
For International rugby teams, the measure of an consummate scrum half has been Aaron Smith. Since his debut in 2012, the captivating figure has grown in confidence, to display most of the skills that other players wish to master. Beside his pass, his intuitive play and defence is an asset for the All Blacks.
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Conor Murray appears to be the next best player, with Will Genia, Danny Care and Greig Laidlaw all being fine examples of the standard. Smith stands near the top, and his 71 International caps include a high proportion of test victories. Nothing it seems, would be out of the ordinary, if Smith were chosen to run out for the first test, on June 9.
Yet TJ Perenara has as much claim for that berth. He displays many of the same skills that Smith holds, his range including more variety of kicking and that speed across the park which longer legs naturally bring.
He might not have started the majority of tests in 2017, but if he was told by the selectors to go away and work on any skills, then from the opening weeks of Super Rugby 2018 his displays have been impressive. That continual improvement must bring a stronger case to start Perenara against the French.
His AllBlacks.com biography states ‘his ability to spot and quickly move through the gaps in opposition defensive lines [which] has long attracted the attention of the selectors, together with his quick-thinking execution of the halfback’s traditional tasks.’
Note: TJ Perenara announced his commitment to NZ Rugby, by signing through to 2021.
Week 16 will be the ‘Final Trial’ match
Over the next nine weeks, this captivating half backs battle will play out in Super Rugby. The Highlanders have a bye week, so TJ Perenara has a clear landscape over the next days to display his powers. Another fine showing against the Sharks in Napier, will underline his name on the test candidates list.
Whether Grant Fox, Scott McLean or even Steve Hansen attend the fixture, they know that in 2018, TJ Perenara is surely now the equal of Aaron Smith. The obvious skill displayed by both to play against the French, will drive which number nine should be named.
The next weeks will lead-up to one specific match that will see each man face the other; Week 16 – Highlanders v Hurricanes, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin.
On that last Friday night match before the International test window opens, the eyes of most rugby fans will be directed on the two teams. The eyes of the selectors will likely specifically follow the work of the two half backs. How they direct play, what they do well and who appears to be the figure that consistently meets the measures each had been asked to meet.
And commentators know that directives are given regularly by All Blacks coaches, for squad members to meet. These will be reinforced thoroughly during the upcoming All Blacks camps.
‘Formation’ day camps:
- April 16 – Christchurch (SI)
- April 23 – Wellington (NI)
New Zealand v France test series three day ‘Preparation’ camps:
- May 20-22 – Auckland
- May 27-29 – Christchurch
The camps are designed to bring players and coaches together on a more regular schedule, than in the past. The advantage for men like TJ Perenara, is that they can gain an insight into what is necessary for then to do [homework you might say]. Work to further their All Blacks place – especially in the intriguing TJ v Aaron battle.
Steve Tew described the value of these camps, in saying “I think quite logically, we have said we need the All Blacks coaches to have some face-time with the players before we start a test series against a country that our fans, and ourselves, expect us to be competitive against.”
To be competitive, the national selectors must pick players on form. And while a winger of loose forward might be demonstrating huge ability, that could see them included in the camps – to be what some might call a ‘bolter’. But the two half backs are both experienced, each confident that they could fill the important role.
By the end of week 16 of Super Rugby, each should take their form into the Steinlager test series. And at that time, the New Zealand rugby public will again be thankful that they have two such talented halfbacks competing for the starting place.
In the scrum half position, the two most dominant players within New Zealand are TJ Perenara and Aaron Smith. Their challenge to one another, and the challenge for selectors in June, is to judge whether the Hurricanes players has now become an equal to the Highlanders pivot.
That choice will be difficult, but shouldn’t the All Blacks consider that their options are still the envy of many other nations in World Rugby.
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