Intense competition could force three changes to the All Blacks' Rugby Championship squad named tomorrow.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen faces some welcome selection headaches. Barring any defections from the Crusaders' Super Rugby semifinal against the Sharks in Christchurch last night, Hansen and fellow selectors, Ian Foster and Grant Fox, have a near fully fit and in-form contingent to pick from.
Dan Carter, Charles Piutau and Sam Cane are the major additions expected to bolster the 31-man squad that will attempt to defend the Rugby Championship crown, maintain their 11-year stranglehold of the Bledisloe Cup and secure a world record 18th successive test victory in the tournament-opener in Sydney on August 16.
Carter missed the June series sweep over England because of his six-month sabbatical, while Piutau and Cane suffered late knee injuries.
Cane has grown in stature over the past 12 months and will be recalled to support Richie McCaw at openside flanker, despite not featuring since fracturing a knee in early June. His inclusion puts the squeeze on the loose-forwards, where Victor Vito, who is believed to be carrying a back complaint, could feel the pinch.
After a well publicised early-season form slump with the Blues, which saw him dropped from the All Blacks before Cane's withdrawal, Steven Luatua is likely to be preferred over Vito.
Luatua has focused on improving his fitness and work-rate and is thought to have done enough in recent weeks to impress the selectors. His ability to cover lock is also deemed valuable, while Vito is predominantly seen as a No 8.
Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino will cover that role and with the All Blacks favouring four locks in their squad, Vito shapes as the unlucky omission.
Carter's return poses some interesting debates around first five-eighth, particularly around who gets the nod on the bench against the Wallabies with Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett both in sparkling touch. It also means Colin Slade - preferred at No 10 by Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder - will struggle to make the cut.
Piutau's recovery creates another conundrum. Dropping any of the established outside backs - Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Julian Savea or Cory Jane - is unlikely. Therefore, midfield roles may be reduced and Ryan Crotty could be the casualty.
Highlanders star Malakai Fekitoa, the leading candidate for Super Rugby rookie of the year, is impossible to leave out on form. Just last week he served a reminder of his lethal attacking talents with another captivating individual try against the Sharks in Durban. That potential will see him backed to cover Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith's proven pairing, which could force Crusaders centre Crotty out of contention. Carter's ability to cover second-five also creates added cover.
Three halfbacks are again expected to be named, despite the Chiefs' Tawera Kerr-Barlow not getting a run against England.
The apprentice hooking scheme which involved the Chiefs' Nathan Harris and Highlanders' Liam Coltman in June may also continue throughout the home tests, but Dane Coles and Keven Mealamu will, initially at least, be relied on to fulfil those duties.
POSSIBLE ALL BLACKS SQUAD
Forwards: Tony Woodcock, Owen Franks, Ben Franks, Charlie Faumuina, Wyatt Crockett, Dane Coles, Keven Mealamu, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Patrick Tuipulotu, Dominic Bird, Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, Liam Messam, Jerome Kaino, Sam Cane, Steven Luatua.
Backs: Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett, Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Malakai Fekitoa, Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Julian Savea, Cory Jane, Charles Piutau.
- Sunday Star Times
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