Kieran Read ready to start for the All Blacks
After a solid return for the Crusaders on Friday, Kieran Read is likely to start for the All Blacks against England this week.
Making his comeback following a prolonged six-week absence with concussion and illness, Read played within himself during the Crusaders' win over the Western Force, but importantly came through the full 80 minutes unscathed.
Read made seven tackles, missed one, and produced some nice offloads and lineout takes. One intercept burst near the end of the match showed his lack of fitness but he will be better for the hit-out.
Had Read not returned in time, Jerome Kaino was favoured to start at No 8 with Victor Vito expected to provide cover when the 31-man All Blacks squad is named this afternoon in Auckland. But Read will now be backed to showcase his trademark physicality and array of skills by starting the first test at Eden Park on Saturday.
"Kieran had a great game. He was huge," Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder said. "After not playing a lot of footy, he made a massive contribution to the game. Getting 80 minutes under his belt will help."
Loyalty is also likely to see Aaron Cruden preferred over in-form Hurricanes first five-eighth Beauden Barrett. The respective displays of the competing pivots last night will be considered, but as the incumbent Chiefs playmaker Cruden retains the inside running.
All the casualties when the All Blacks squad is trimmed from 36 to 31 players are expected to come in the forward pack.
While Chiefs hooker Nathan Harris will train with the squad in Auckland and Hamilton and Highlanders counterpart Liam Coltman in Dunedin - in an apprentice role similar to Ardie Savea on the end-of-year tour - the All Blacks are expected to carry only two hookers.
To continue Dane Coles' progression, it would make sense to give the Hurricanes rake the first start with Keven Mealamu's experience to come on in the latter stages.
There will be no surprise with Crusaders loose-forward Luke Whitelock and Hurricanes lock Jeremy Thrush, having participated in one camp each, missing the cut, but Blues loose-forward Steven Luatua is a major omission.
He has been told to work on his attitude and fitness, with a belief he may have become complacent this season.
Luatua's deflection paves the way for Vito, who last featured for the All Blacks in the third test against France in New Plymouth almost 12 months ago, to return.
It will also be a special day for Patrick Tuipulotu. The big bruising Blues lock is expected to be included as one of three rookies.
The cull in the forward pack should allow for Ryan Crotty to be retained in the midfield, alongside dynamic Highlanders rookie Malakai Fekitoa and the incumbents.
Selecting just four outside backs also creates the flexibility to carry three halfbacks, including T J Perenara who is yet to make his test debut, with Colin Slade getting the nod as the third first-five.
During his successful tenure, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has shown the ability to make the hard calls but also remain loyal to those that have done the job previously. On that basis, Chiefs co-captain Liam Messam deserves the chance to start at blindside flanker initially, having done nothing to lose his spot, with Kaino expected to provide cover for him and Read from the bench this week.
HOW THEY LINE UP
Likely squad: Wyatt Crockett, Tony Woodcock, Charlie Faumuina, Owen Franks, Ben Franks, Dane Coles, Keven Mealamu, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Dominic Bird, Patrick Tuipulotu, Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw, Liam Messam, Kieran Read, Victor Vito, Sam Cane, Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett, Colin Slade, Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Malakai Fekitoa, Ryan Crotty, Cory Jane, Julian Savea, Israel Dagg, Ben Smith.