Changing of the Guard?

16:27:00, Thu 28 Jan 2016 Jim Kayes 170909All Blacks Pumas _09

On the eve of the year's first Bledisloe Cup test All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith recounted a try Jerome Kaino scored against the Barbarians on debut in 2004.

Smith told the All Blacks Tours event in Sydney of Kaino's pace and how he blasted past Wallabies fullback Mat Rogers to score one of the All Blacks seven tries that day at Twickenham. Fast forward 13 years and there was much of Kaino in Vaea Fifita's performance against the Pumas in New Plymouth.

He was huge on defence, had a terrific work rate and was strong over the ball - and then there was his pace. For a big man - and he's tall enough to have played lock - Fifita is super quick. Nehe Milner-Skudder told me Fifita would challenge Beauden Barrett in a foot race. 

The Pumas test was Fifita's second so he is clearly still a raw talent at the international level but coach Steve Hansen is a big fan having said the Hurricanes loose forward is one of the best athletes he's coached.

Fifita's rise is not good news for Kaino, especially when you add in the form of Liam Squire. Like Julian Savea, Kaino may have started the the year as an established All Black, but he's on track to finish it is with the word "former" attached to it. Kaino has been a terrific All Black. He has won two World Cups and should be remembered as one of the best to have worn the black No6 jersey through his 81 tests. But at 34 he has lost some of his pace and his absence from the test side due to personal matters has given Squire and Fifita a chance to impress. They've made the most of it.

A similar thing has happened on the wing. Milner-Skudder was World Rugby's breakthrough player of 2015 and he showed why at Yarrow Stadium, quickly back into his stride with 12 carries for 75 metres and the opening try of the match, his ninth in as many tests. He is an exceptional player and there is now so much competition for the back three it almost beggars belief with Rieko Ioane wasn't needed in New Plymouth and Waisake Naholo was out with concussion. Remember Ben Smith is now on his sabbatical and there is a decent old logjam of talent for Hansen to utilise as he now builds toward the 2019 World Cup with Damian McKenzie and David Havili in the mix too.

There is a path back for Savea and Kaino. Israel Dagg showed that when he had a horrible 2015, missed the World Cup squad, then got injured but has returned to be a key part of an otherwise reasonably young and inexperienced backline. At 27 Savea is hardly old but he has a lot of ground to make up against the young turks. His is perhaps a tougher challenge than Kaino's.

While the All Blacks are unbeaten in the Rugby Championship they are yet to produce a convincing 80-minute performance with a late flurry of tries providing for a rather flattering 39-22 scoreline at Yarrow Stadium.
They dominated possession with 60 per cent of the ball and made 41 clean breaks as they carried the ball for 607 metres compared to Argentina's 213 metres, and made 13 off loads to the Pumas' four. Yet somehow they struggled to shake the Pumas till late in the match. It will concern Hansen, just as the patchy performances against Australia will have given him a bit to think about. But it also gives him something to work on as the All Blacks prepare for the Springboks in Albany this week. 

That match should see the return of lock Sam Whitelock and influential midfielder Ryan Crotty to the starting XV but all eyes will be on who starts at six and on the wings. We are seeing a changing of the guard.