As the All Blacks build their depth, competition for places
has become more intense on this European tour and nowhere is
the battle fiercer than at blindside.
Liam Messam, against the odds having initially been left out
of the squad back in June, has nailed down the No6 jersey in
2012. He's come of age this year, playing more consistently
and without the erratic blips or tendency to try the
He's a different player - but is he the right player, the one
the All Blacks see as replacing Jerome Kaino in the
It's hard to believe he is, even if he continues to play how
he has been. Messam is solid, tough and committed - qualities
the All Blacks demand. His work in the tight this year has
impressed; it is much improved. But as well as he's played,
there is no doubt the All Blacks have their eyes open for
Messam, at 1.88m and 108kg, is not as small as everyone seems
to say he is but there are bigger athletes around and when it
comes to blindsides, that's critical.
Victor Vito, the man currently pushing Messam the hardest, is
one of those bigger athletes. He's a beast, in fact - listed
at 1.92m and 112kg, he looks even bigger in the flesh and,
much to All Black coach Steve Hansen's delight, is starting
to play like he's a big man, too.
Vito's athletic potential has been obvious since he made such
an impression at the Wellington Sevens five years ago. The
speed and ball skills have always been there but the
grinding, bruising, graft required to cut it at the top level
have been harder for him to produce.
But there were positive signs against Scotland that Vito is
advancing that side of his game.
"I think we saw something in Victor's game against Scotland
that was much improved," says Hansen. "Free of mind, for want
of a better term, I think he has allowed himself to think too
much rather than just play and do. We saw in the Scotland
performance that he was a little more carefree with his
"I am not saying he was loose, he just felt more comfortable
about doing things rather than thinking about them. And if he
does that, we know he's a gifted athlete - a big gifted
athlete with plenty of potential."
The battle between Messam and Vito for longevity in the
blindside role is reminiscent of the scenario in 2008-2009
when Adam Thomson and Jerome Kaino were battling each other.
Those two were used alternately and in tandem for most of
those two years before Kaino, on the European tour of 2009,
nailed his place with some impressive physical performances.
Hansen feels the situation may be similar now and that for
much of next season Messam and Vito will be pushing each
other hard before a clear winner emerges. But it might not be
as clear-cut as it was with Kaino and Thomson.
The picture could yet be clouded by the emergence of two
young pretenders: Brad Shields and Luke Whitelock were both
invited to the wider training squad camps in June and the
former may well have been taken on this trip - ahead of the
undecided Thomson - if he'd been fit. It's the natural
aggression and mobility of Shields that excites. The grinding
part of the game comes naturally to him. He's comfortable
putting himself about and he carries an edge.
Still only 21, the 1.93m, 111kg Shields was remarkably
composed and effective when he played for the Hurricanes this
year and the expectation is that he'll grow quickly into the
"I think so depending on what happens on the domestic front,"
says Hansen in regard to whether he sees Messam and Vito
continuing to be the frontrunners for the All Black No6
"There are a couple of young guys back home that we see as
potentially being good players and who knows, Jerome [Kaino]
might even come back from Japan. Liam and Victor are the
incumbents and the competition is really on."
- By Gregor Paul, Herald on Sunday