All Blacks return to red and black ranks

HERE'S JOHNNY: Canterbury wing Johnny McNicholl makes a pass before leaving the field injured in Canterbury's win over Waikato in Hamilton last Friday.
HERE'S JOHNNY: Canterbury wing Johnny McNicholl makes a pass before leaving the field injured in Canterbury's win over Waikato in Hamilton last Friday.

If Scott Robertson lost his head and hurled rocks at his squad this week it's likely he would knock over an All Black or a Super Rugby player - including returning internationals Colin Slade and Joe Moody.

Unlike many other National Provincial Championship coaches, who have mined their academies or plundered other provinces to fill their squad lists, Canterbury coach Robertson is surrounded by experienced troops and must find a way to accommodate All Blacks Slade and Moody for Thursday night's match against Northland.

The influx doesn't stop there: Highlanders co-captain Nasi Manu is also expected to get a run at AMI Stadium after being rested from the opening matches against Auckland and Waikato.

Even when taking into account the knee injury suffered by Johnny McNicholl during last Friday night's 58-27 drubbing of Waikato in Hamilton, and that Tom Taylor is still out with a fractured eye socket, the biggest issue for Robertson is how to convince himself to drop in-form players from his unbeaten side.

One thing appears certain. Utility back Slade and loosehead prop Moody won't be ignored.

"To get a couple of guys - local boys who have been promoted to the All Blacks - back for our squad is great," Robertson said. "Our team protocol is that if they have earned the right to get that All Blacks jersey, then they have earned the right to play for us when they come back."

The arrival of Slade, Moody and Manu means Robertson has to dig-out his shoe-horn at the selection table.

Moody will be a straight swap for rookie Alex Hodgman but there may be some reluctance to push Tyler Bleyendaal out of first five-eighth to accommodate Slade; Robertson could instead shift Slade back to fullback at the expense of Richie Mo'unga.

This would allow him to retain Bleyendaal at playmaker because Slade is expected to return to the All Blacks for next month's match against Argentina in Napier. Dan Carter's fractured leg is taking longer to heal than expected and All Blacks coach Steve Hansen will want three first-fives.

If Manu starts at either No 8 or blindside flanker the back row will be revamped. Luke Whitelock could change roles and move to blindside flanker, meaning Matt Todd would return to his specialist openside position ahead of Jed Brown.

The extent of McNicholl's medial ligament strain will be ascertained by scans but there is little chance of him starting against Northland. Milford Keresoma or Robbie Thompson - who also impressed Robertson at second-five in place of the injured Taylor - could start on the left wing.

All Blacks lock Dominic Bird, who was ruled out of the two tests against the Wallabies because of "turf toe", may be given more time to recover from the injury.

Northland thrashed Wellington 35-5 in Whangarei on Saturday. That margin against last year's premiership runners-up surprised Robertson.

"We know Wellington have lost a lot players through injury but we just didn't expect that. It was quite emphatic when you look at it."

The Press