Rugby: Fierce blindside battle only just beginning

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 impossible.

He's a different player - but is he the right player, the one the All Blacks see as replacing Jerome Kaino in the long-term?

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 alternatives.

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 thought processes.

"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 enforcer role.

"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 jersey.

"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

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