They had it all mapped out. Smith will play the Bledisloe Cup tests and then stand down, paving the way for Barrett to play at fullback.
Easy, until Barrett showed up in camp with his shoulder still sore from a knock he took in the Super Rugby semi-final and was told he’d need surgery to fix it.
Now it’s not immediately obvious what the All Blacks will do when Smith goes for his break. They have options - they always do - but each comes with a few question marks.
The safe option would be to pick Israel Dagg at fullback. It was his preferred position for the bulk of his career and he’s played almost 50 tests there.
But it is no longer his first option and it is no longer the position the selectors feel is his best. These days he’s a wing and if the All Blacks return him to fullback, they will be missing the opportunity to grow and develop a younger man with a longer future in the jersey.
So the safe option probably doesn’t appeal. The wild card would be to pick Beauden Barrett at fullback and introduce Lima Sopoaga at first-five, but that stacks as more crazy than wild.
That should frankly have a red pen stroked clean through it as it would make no sense to put the team’s best playmaker at fullback.
Nehe Milner-Skudder has plenty of experience at fullback but All Blacks coach Ian Foster confirmed that the Hurricane is a wing in the national set-up and they haven’t considered him to be anything else at this stage.
That narrows things down to two options: Damian McKenzie and David Havili. The former was an original squad pick - or just about as he is the replacement-designate for Smith.
The thing is, though, the selectors aren’t sold on McKenzie as an out-and-out fullback.
The All Blacks have been clear since McKenzie began in Super Rugby that they feel his best position is first-five. That’s where they have wanted him to play and yet McKenzie has been through three campaigns and barely worn the Chiefs No 10 jersey.
It’s that lack of game time at No 10 which has kept McKenzie on the periphery. Right now, McKenzie is kind of betwixt and between because the All Blacks haven’t always been able to find room in their squad for him as a fullback and haven’t felt they can pick him as a No 10 because he hasn’t proven himself there yet despite his skill-set being strongly suited.
When it comes to first-five, it’s all about time in the role as game management is an art that takes time to master.
The All Blacks coaches are sold on his skill-set, his bravery, his goalkicking and his ability to make things happen and they like the thought of him on the bench providing dual options at fullback and first-five, much like Beauden Barrett offered between 2012 and 2015.
And it is as a utility bench option that he may be used in the Rugby Championship - given 20 minutes to 30 minutes a test to get on the park and have impact without anyone being overly concerned whether he’s doing that from No 10 or fullback.
Which leaves Havili as potentially the main beneficiary of Barrett’s misfortune.
The Crusaders player has a kicking game, is good in the air and tackles strongly - effectively making him a like-for-like replacement.
He’s played consistently well this year and appears to have the right sort of temperament for the big occasion.
He would have woken up this morning possibly unsure what the day would bring, to end it in camp with the All Blacks in Auckland a potential candidate to inherit Smith’s No 15 jersey in a few weeks.
- NZ Herald