Five newcomers named in ABs training squad
Loose forward and hooker gave All Blacks coach Steve Hansen headaches for contrasting reasons before he finalised the 35-man training squad he named today.
Eight loose forwards and four hookers take up a decent chunk of the squad for training camps in Christchurch and Wellington over the next few weeks.
The squad, that includes five uncapped players, will be trimmed back to 31 for three tests against England next month and Hansen was quick to stress the camp was not a guarantee of selection for those matches.
However, it is undoubtedly a reasonable guide and the question now will be who makes the cut, with final auditions to include the camps as well as three rounds of Super Rugby.
Hansen said the selection of so many flankers, including the recall of Hurricanes No 8 Victor Vito and the addition of Crusader Luke Whitelock, had been a case of so many players being in top form.
"We have a lot of questions to ask there, we have a lot of people putting their hands up and we can only put so many of them in," he said.
In reality, it may also have something to do with incumbent No 8 Kieran Read's continuing struggles with concussion.
Neither of Blues loosies Jerome Kaino and Steven Luatua has nailed the No 8 role during Super Rugby, meaning Vito or Whitelock, who will only attend the camp in Christchurch, could become vital against the English in what is a high-attrition position.
Hansen didn't hide from the fact the search was still on for legitimate test hookers behind incumbent Hurricanes rake Dane Coles and aging Blues man Keven Mealamu.
"Liam Coltman has been coming along nicely for a while now and Nathan Harris has been waiting to get an opportunity," Hansen said.
"Since he's been given that opportunity he's been particularly impressive. Both of them are young men and we're not sure yet whether they are ready for test rugby, but we'll find more about them at the camp."
Hansen was disappointed experienced Crusaders rake Corey Flynn had chosen to shift to France, but said he understood his reasons.
"Hooker is a concern," he said.
"There is no one putting their hand up [and] with Corey Flynn saying he's going to go off to Toulouse it means we are short on experience there if we lose one of the top two guys. That's how it is, so we'll have to bring whoever is next in and do a good job with them."
Hansen said injured Blues fullback Charles Piutau (knee) and Crusaders lock Luke Romano (broken ankle) would have both been in the squad.
Romano's injury had earned Jeremy Thrush a call up for the Wellington camp, while Piutau had opened the way for Crusader Colin Slade to come in as the third first five-eighth.
"We had the opportunity to bring in another first five and Colin's been in outstanding form, and he continued that on Sunday, which allowed us to bring three in," Hansen said.
"If Charles had been right we probably would have gone for two for the camps. We are mindful of wanting to look at a number of forwards at the moment as opposed to backs."
Highlanders centre Malakai Fekitoa's selection had been a no-brainer.
"His form was such that we couldn't not include him," the coach said.
"He ticked all the boxes and he's someone we are very interested in looking at and getting to know a bit better."
Blues lock Patrick Tuipulotu was someone the selectors wanted to learn more about in an All Black environment, while Chiefs prop Ben Tameifuna was still not fit enough to consider.
Hansen said it was premature to talk about players who were "unlucky" with the test squad to play England still not settled.
"I don't think unlucky is the term to use because it is only a wider training group," he said.
"Once we get down to the 31 then I think we can start talking about people who were unlucky.
"We have a wide knowledge of a lot of players in New Zealand. We know a lot about Andy Ellis for example and we know a lot about Piri Weepu for example, but not a lot about some other people."
The players attending the All Blacks wider training camps are:
Hookers: Keven Mealamu (Blues), Nathan Harris (Chiefs), Dane Coles (Hurricanes) and Liam Coltman (Highlanders).
Props: Charlie Faumuina and Tony Woodcock (Blues), Ben Franks (Hurricanes) and Wyatt Crockett and Owen Franks (Crusaders).
Locks: Patrick Tuipulotu (Blues), Brodie Retallick (Chiefs), Jeremy Thrush * (Hurricanes) and Dominic Bird and Sam Whitelock (Crusaders).
Loose forwards: Jerome Kaino and Steven Luatua (Blues), Sam Cane and Liam Messam (Chiefs), Victor Vito (Hurricanes) and Richie McCaw, Kieran Read and Luke Whitelock * (Crusaders).
Halfbacks: Tawera Kerr–Barlow (Chiefs), TJ Perenara (Hurricanes) and Aaron Smith (Highlanders).
First five-eighths: Aaron Cruden (Chiefs), Beauden Barrett (Hurricanes) and Colin Slade (Crusaders).
Midfielders: Ma'a Nonu (Blues), Conrad Smith (Hurricanes), Ryan Crotty (Crusaders) and Malakai Fekitoa (Highlanders).
Outside backs: Cory Jane and Julian Savea (Hurricanes), Israel Dagg (Crusaders) and Ben Smith (Highlanders).
* Thrush will attend the Wellington camp only; Luke Whitelock will participate in only the Christchurch camp.
The All Blacks play England at Eden Park, Auckland, on Saturday, June 7; at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin, on Saturday, June 14; and at Waikato Stadium, Hamilton, on Saturday June 21.