All Blacks rookies show New Zealand's depth

02:46, Jun 02 2014
FULL OF FLAIR: Standout Highlanders centre Malakai Fekitoa is one of the five newcomers to the 35-man All Blacks training squad.

The progression continues. Malakai Fekitoa, Patrick Tuipulotu and TJ Perenara form further evidence of New Zealand's unrivalled production line. The three rookies, named yesterday in the All Blacks 31-man squad for three tests against England this month, will take the eventual number of new players since the last World Cup to 24.

It's happened in full view and yet the calculated transition has been largely overlooked.

"It does, and I probably expect that number to grow over the next wee while," All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said of his rookies. "It's about consolidating a little bit for the next three weeks."

Patrick Tuipulotu
FUTURE STAR: Ponsonby Rugby Club’s Patrick Tuipulotu was named in the All Blacks’ wider training squad earlier this week.

Plenty has been made of the talent leaving these shores - the likes of Hurricanes fullback Andre Taylor and Chiefs midfielder Bundee Aki departing in their prime. But such deflections only strengthen the view New Zealand boasts the world's best breeding ground.

"The development systems are working tremendously well. The problem is we've got a whole lot of other competitors trying to use our development programme," Hansen said. "There's certainly no issue about the number of players being developed, otherwise we wouldn't have that pressure from outside sources."

The return of Victor Vito, Jerome Kaino and Colin Slade enhances the depth of Hansen's first squad this year. Leaving out the talented Steven Luatua, who has been told to work on his attitude and fitness, is a luxury few other countries could consider.


TJ Perenara
Hurricanes halfback TJ Perenara is itching to prove his credentials at the next level.

Vito had lifted his physicality, presence at the breakdown and ball carrying efforts, though with six loose forwards he probably benefitted from only the two incumbent hookers, Dane Coles and Keven Mealamu, being deemed ready for test footy.     

"We've always known he was a good athlete it's about imposing himself on the game with some intensity that is required at this level," Hansen said.

The focus now will turn to how the three rookies are introduced at test level.

FULL OF FLAIR: Standout Highlanders centre Malakai Fekitoa has been named to the All Blacks squad.

"We'll see how they cope with the pressure of being here then make some decisions as the weeks go by and introduce them when they're ready."

Perenara, the third halfback, sums up the patience required, having spent a month with the All Blacks and sitting on the bench in Dublin last year, but not yet making his debut.

"It was probably the biggest learning of my career, even though I wasn't playing," he said. "Being with the best players in the world and seeing how Aaron [Smith] and Tawera [Kerr Barlow] prepared each week and the skill sets they work on was big for me."

Both Fekitoa and Tuipulotu admitted it was a very different feeling being included in the training camp squads, compared with making the final cut. Big Blues lock Tuipulotu, a straight replacement for injured tighthead lock Luke Romano, also epitomised the competitive attitude of the new brigade.

This generation are itching to prove their credentials at the next level. 

"I'm a lot happier and not as nervous," he said. "I can't stop smiling wherever I go. It makes me want to put my hand up and get pick for the playing team. I know it will be hard, especially with two starting locks already nailed in. I've just got to push for my position in that team."

For the softly-spoken Fekitoa, yesterday was another step in an incredible journey from Tonga, where he was almost crippled as a child before a life-changing period at Wesley College. The blockbusting midfielder has since used his bizarre deflection from the Blues to fuel his superb form with the Highlanders.    

"Going from no games last year to this, it's huge for me," the 22-year-old said. "I've just got to learn and take every opportunity I get.

"In Tongan I didn't think I would go anywhere because there are no opportunities to get out, but once I arrived in this country with the scholarship everything changed.

"It's good for me to get in this early and test myself against the senior guys. If I'm not good enough then I'll go back down

"It will take time for me as a midfielder to refine my skills and make good decisions.

I feel ready. I have to believe in myself."

All Blacks 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.