Rugby: All Blacks combine and conquer

Aaron Smith (R), seen tackling Piri Weepu at an All Black training session in Edinburgh, will...
Aaron Smith (R), seen tackling Piri Weepu at an All Black training session in Edinburgh, will wear the No 9 jersey for the All Blacks against Italy this weekend. (Photo by Hannah Johnston/Getty Images)
As much as individual brilliance bubbles through the All Blacks, it is the team ethos which creates their momentum.

Consistency comes from selflessness and that old saying about there being no "I" in team.

While the sides were split for the opening tests against Scotland and Italy, there was huge attention paid to combinations.

This week captain Kieran Read and halfback Aaron Smith get a chance to build their test potency and find the rhythm they will need against Wales and England.

Players can train all week and make few mistakes. While that is a necessary foundation for any side, it is no substitute for match-play.

Victor Vito found that out against Scotland.

He has had a fitful test year after earning the blindside role with some stunning Super rugby work but then damaging his knee in the opening tests with Ireland.

After that he battled to get back to full fitness and a regular place in the side.

So Read and Smith will see this test as a crucial segment of their return to the test team.

They are at the hub of the All Black machine; they are part of the spine and core of the side whose strength determines the quality of the team production.

If they are powerful, slick and accurate there is a consequent zing about the All Blacks, a flow which most opponents find difficult to quell for entire matches.

Read brings the rampage and the power, Smith the speed and dexterity.

Like all players they have parts of their game to consolidate.

Read's may be his control at the base of the scrum, Smith knowing when to launch one of his searing bursts.

But they are both setting the global standards for their positions. Read and Pumas captain Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe are great combatants, men who deliver premium standards in most test appearances.

Without the injured Will Genia, the world and the Wallabies have been deprived of the game's best halfback.

Suddenly Smith is challenging a clutch of others for that description.

Mike Phillips might have something to say about that in a few weeks, while Dimitri Yachvili has been a consistent performer for France.

One All Black looking to find a way back towards some of the clout he used to deliver is Ali Williams, the long-serving lock whose career has been spiked by injury in the last few years.

Achilles tendon problems were the worst but he also had knee surgery this season. His progress has slowed and after years of being an automatic pick, he is now in the fortunate selection group.

By default, lack of recognised test alternatives - take your choice for the selectors' decision.

What is clear is that Williams has to show something on this tour and then a whole lot more with the Blues next season to prolong his international shelf-life.

He knows it and despite his sometimes aberrant public appearances and utterances, Williams covets the jersey as much as any player. If he works hard and adds to the team character, that dream has a chance.

- Wynne Gray


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