All Blacks: Francis Saili to Make Test Debut; How Will He Fit?

Jeff CheshireAnalyst IISeptember 4, 2013

HAMILTON, NEW ZEALAND - SEPTEMBER 03:  Francis Saili of the All Blacks runs with the ball during a New Zealand All Blacks training session at Beetham Park on September 3, 2013 in Hamilton, New Zealand.  (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Phil Walter/Getty Images

Francis Saili will make his Test debut for the All Blacks against Argentina in this weekend's Rugby Championship match in Hamilton, covering at second five-eighth for the injured Ma'a Nonu. 

It has been a long wait for Saili, after initially being named in the All Blacks squad to take on France in their three-match series in June, but not making it onto the field. 

At just 22 years old, Saili is still very much a growing player, but a strong Super 15 campaign with the Blues saw him catch the eye of the selectors and jump into the role of potential backup to Nonu.

Indeed, who would fill this role has been something of a mystery for much of 2013, with there being no obvious replacement with the departure of Tamati Ellison.

Daniel Carter is certainly an option, a strong runner and a tough defender, but moving him out into the midfield would be a waste when he is so valuable as a first five-eighth. 

Ryan Crotty's name has been thrown around a lot too, after an impressive showing in the Super 15, beginning to look dangerous running at gaps as well as remaining solid on defence. He was duly rewarded with his first test cap earlier in the Rugby Championship against Australia.

But this week it is Saili that has gotten the nod, a dangerous runner who is capable of slicing through defences and will add flair to an already lethal All Blacks' back line.

His lack of experience may be something of a concern, but he will be sandwiched between Carter and Conrad Smith, two of the world's most intelligent and capable players. It is a good situation for the youngster to be in and will allow him to focus on doing the basics right and concentrating on his own game, while Carter and Smith can call the shots.

Playing outside Carter will suit him too, as Carter likes to take the ball to the line and will look to put Saili into gaps rather than force him to create for himself, making him that much more dangerous. 

Of course he is known for the occasional lapse, the odd bad pass or defensive blunder. But in many cases the good far outweigh the bad, and as long as he focuses on just doing his core job while adding a bit of spark here and there, he should do fine against an Argentinian team who have looked average at best so far in 2013.

He isn't as destructive with ball in hand as Ma'a Nonu, while not being as rock solid on defence or possessing the same distribution game, either. But Nonu, like many others in this All Blacks side, will not be around forever, and new talent needs to be found so there is a replacement ready when needed.

Saili's form over the last 12 months has been promising, and he looks to be one of the best bets to be this replacement. The man is electric—he has flair and instinct that can't be coached. The rest can come with experience; just give him time. For now he just has to do a job and make the most of his opportunity.