Fit-again All Black gives Steve Hansen a selection headache
IN a side full of superstars, Ryan Crotty's name doesn't immediately leap off the page, but the Crusaders midfielder is becoming increasingly valuable to Steve Hansen's All Blacks.
The Crusaders' only two defeats of the season - against the British and Irish Lions 12-3 and Hurricanes 31-22 - came when the 28-year-old was missing.
Nor did the All Blacks win either of their next two Tests against the Lions after Crotty limped off midway through the first Test with a hamstring injury.
After Crotty's All Black teammate Sonny Bill Williams was cleared to play the opening Bledisloe match in Sydney, the duo - as well as versatile Chiefs centre Anton Lienert-Brown - will compete for the starting midfield combination.
It's one of the few selection areas that are sure to come up for debate when Hansen sits down with the All Blacks brains trust.
It's expected Hansen will revert back to Williams and Crotty, who started the Lions series at No.12 and No.13 before being forced to name a new combination because of injury and suspension, for Saturday night's opening Bledisloe Test against the Wallabies in Sydney.
But former All Blacks great Andrew Mehrtens says he'd like to see Crotty, who was the man of the match during the Crusaders' Super Rugby final win over the Lions in Johannesburg, in the second five-eighth position and Williams given a go at outside centre.
"I've always preferred Crotty at 12 because I think that's his best position," Mehrtens said.
"But he obviously can handle it really, really well at 13 too.
"But I think 12's his best position.
"I'd be curious to see what Sonny Bill goes like at 13, as well.
"Of the three players Lienert-Brown is probably the most versatile as well in terms of covering the two positions, but I'm curious to see what they come up with.
"They want to get the ball in Sonny Bill's hands as early as possible.
"I think he'd still get that at 13 and I think he could use his height to his advantage where he's away from more of that traffic and can get himself into more one-on-one positions."
Playing in between second-year playmaker Richie Mo'unga and rookie outside centre Jack Goodhue, Crotty was the perfect foil for his two young teammates.
His straight running, organisation and strong defence have always been the hallmarks of his game, but Mehrtens said Crotty had taken his pace to a new level this year, which had made him a more dangerous threat.
"He's the guy who really brought that backline together for the Crusaders," Mehrtens said.
"Richie Mo'unga was outstanding and showed a lot of composure for a guy so young, as was Mitch Hunt when he filled in, and they've got really good nines and 10s and any of those different combinations work really well together, but the consistent factor was Ryan Crotty being there.
"Whether it's on attack or defence and just providing the nous, and saying he provides the seriousness or doing what's required to be done actually belays the fact he's a very talented player as well.
"He's taken his speed to a new level, but just his tackling, his organisation in defence and being in the right place at the right time to make the crucial tackle or to straighten up to make a break or get the team on the front foot, it's not a coincidence.
"That's timing and wanting to work hard and he's been a huge part of it."
Hansen will name his team for Saturday's opening Bledisloe in Sydney on Wednesday morning.