Ralph a contender for No. 13
13 April 2006Â
By RICHARD KNOWLER
With less than two months until the international season, the All Blacks selectors will have ranked their candidates to fill the vacant No. 13 jersey.
On last year's grand slam tour of Britain and Ireland, Hurricanes players Tana Umaga, Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu all started at centre but the permutations have since taken a drastic turn.
Umaga has hung up his international boots, Smith is out with a broken leg and while still fit, Nonu has not done enough to be rated the best centre in New Zealand.
There is no doubt the powerful Nonu can break a line and in full flight is an irresistible sight as he leaves defenders stumbling in his wake. Yet his detractors will say that his distribution skills need work.
There was never a better example than when the Crusaders played the Hurricanes in Wellington on April 1. Nonu made one of his trademark busts late in the game but a wayward pass undid his good work and the momentum was lost.
The better option would have been to wait for his support runners to connect with him before going to ground. Instead, he tried to flick the miracle ball.
His display that night also gave reason to question his temperament for such big-match occasions.
He got away with dumping fullback Leon MacDonald on his head in a clumsy tackle.
But in a test match with a northern hemisphere touch judge patrolling the sidelines like a nit-picking traffic cop, he may not have been so fortunate.
Question marks also remain over whether he goes too far on attack and gets isolated.
The other centre options are Caleb Ralph, Mils Muliaina, Anthony Tuitavake, Seilala Mapusua and Casey Laulala.
Muliaina has had just one run at centre for the Chiefs before being moved back to fullback.
A hand injury and a stuttering Chiefs side have not done Muliaina any favours but he has represented Auckland in the midfield, has expressed a desire to play there again and has shown some nice touches this season.
MacDonald's hot form has earned him the tag as New Zealand's best fullback and unless injured he should be a certainty for the All Blacks No. 15 jersey.
Tuitavake has lost some ground on last year.
Last season he thrived in the Super 12 when drafted to the Highlanders and such was his impact with North Harbour in the NPC that he was thought unlucky to miss the grand slam tour.
It is difficult to see him advancing his cause at this stage.
The Highlanders' Mapusua should be considered an outside chance at the very best. Laulala has not played enough time to impress.
The last option is Ralph, who is preferred ahead of 2004 All Blacks centre Laulala for the Crusaders.
At 95kg, Ralph is no lightweight but is still 7kg lighter than Nonu.
However, he reads a game well, has a low mistake-ratio and possesses a keen eye for a gap.
Ralph's distribution skills and calm temperament saw him slip seamlessly into the Crusaders midfield when Laulala fell injured for last year's finals.
He works in well with All Blacks second five-eighths Aaron Mauger.
This combination could work well in the All Blacks, especially with another Crusader, Dan Carter, at first-five.
Yet, the selectors may want a physical, aggressive runner to play alongside the smaller, creative Mauger.
This could be Nonu's saving grace for the opening international against Ireland on June 10 at Waikato Stadium.