Birthday boy Barrett coy on AB selection gift
Beauden Barrett wasn't saying whether All Blacks coach Steve Hansen had given him the perfect gift for his birthday.
But reading between the lines it seems increasingly likely the 23-year-old Hurricane is the hot favourite to make his first test start at first five-eighth against England in a fortnight.
Hansen confirmed the national selectors had already settled on their squad for the first test at Eden Park but were yet to make a final decision on who would start or which four players they would cull from the extended 35-strong squad on Sunday.
With No 8 Kieran Read back to full fitness and the sun on their backs, the All Blacks looked full of energy at the completion of their second training camp in Wellington yesterday.
"He's fine, he's got over his head knock well and truly and now its just getting his sinuses right," Hansen said of Read's health. "He's training well and feeling good."
What remains unclear is whether Read, who has not played for five weeks, and first five-eighth Aaron Cruden, just back from a broken thumb, had enough rugby under their belts to convince Hansen they'd be test ready to play England in Auckland on June 7.
"Both are in a situation where they haven't had a lot of game time. We can't change that. We'll make our judgments on that after Saturday if they both play," Hansen said.
Read is likely to play some part in the Crusaders' match against the Force in Christchurch on Friday, while Cruden will start for the Chiefs against the Waratahs the following day in New Plymouth.
But there are signs some new faces might get the nod for the All Blacks opening test of 2014 and birthday boy Barrett had a noticeable spring in his step after a closed session at the Hutt Recreation Ground during which he may well have run the cutter in the first XV.
"I'm starting to get on a bit and it feels like I've been around for a while too," Barrett joked as Hansen wandered past singing "happy birthday" in his ear.
Injury seems the only thing that can halt the Taranaki man's current run with Cruden's lack of game time and Dan Carter's sabbatical opening the door at an opportune time.
Ditto for thunder-thighed Highlanders centre Malakai Fekitoa, who in tandem with Ma'a Nonu would provide an exciting glimpse of the future in a Barrett-led backline.
Barrett has always been a remarkably unruffled character and he is batting away the hype around his current form in typically comfortable fashion.
"I'm not one to read too much. You have to learn to take the good with the bad," he said. "You can only worry about preparing each week for each game. My concern is how the team is doing at the Hurricanes and looking to give ourselves a play-off opportunity. That's where my head is at.
"If selected hopefully I can carry that on to when England come over and play, but I'm just worrying about this match against the Blues [on Saturday], so I'm not getting too far ahead of myself."
Nor will a number of other players on the cusp of a squad that will shrink to 31 after the next round of Super Rugby.
Hansen will cull at least one of the four hookers at the camps and probably one each of his five locks and eight loose forwards.
He is still pondering whether to carry just two hookers against England or bring in either of Highlanders rake Liam Coltman or young Chiefs hooker Nathan Harris.
If Coltman and Harris are both cut free, Hurricanes lock Jeremy Thrush and Crusaders loose forward Luke Whitelock, who each attended just one of the two training camps, could be the other two players to miss the cut.
Hansen confirmed the All Blacks would "probably" carry all three halfbacks Aaron Smith, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and T J Perenara and "most likely" all three first-fives in Barrett, Cruden and Colin Slade.
Pivot Danny Cipriani is in line for a first England appearance in six years after being named in the 30-man squad to face the All Blacks next month.
With Bath first-five George Ford ruled out by a shoulder injury, the 26-year-old Cipriani and Gloucester No 10 Freddie Burns were named in a squad featuring seven uncapped players and a trio of new hookers.
Forwards: Joe Marler, Matt Mullan, Kieran Brookes, Henry Thomas, David Wilson, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Joe Gray, Dave Ward, Rob Webber, Dave Attwood, Joe Launchbury, Geoff Parling, Ed Slater, James Haskell, Tom Johnson, Matt Kvesic, Ben Morgan, Chris Robshaw.
Backs: Danny Care, Ben Youngs, Freddie Burns, Danny Cipriani, Kyle Eastmond, Manusamoa Tuilagi, Henry Trinder, Billy Twelvetrees, Jonny May, Marland Yarde, Mike Brown, Chris Pennell.
The Dominion Post