The European tours of Tamati Ellison and Ben Smith hang by a thread.
After being paired together in the midfield for the All Blacks victory over Scotland, the valuable Highlanders utilities could be heading home after just one match.
All Blacks doctor Deb Robinson took the wounded players for scans in Rome today as the rest of the team went through a sharp one-hour training session where mistakes were almost non existent.
But for Ellison and Smith, the diagnosis was not good.
Ellison could barely walk during yesterday's prolonged travel day from Edinburgh and he cut a dejected figure after learning he had suffered ligament damage to the underside of his foot today.
Smith's blackened and swollen eye turned out to be a fractured cheek bone and, while he may recover, the dual injury-blow leaves the All Blacks midfield stocks severely depleted.
All Blacks management have given themselves three days to assess whether Ellison and Smith will play any further part in the tour.
"We've had scans on both of them," All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster said today. "Tamati has got a sore toe. There's ligament damage on the side of his toe. It's a little bit unusual. We're going to give ourselves a couple of days now we know what it is to see if it settles down.
"Ben Smith has a small fracture in his cheek. We're not sure at this stage whether he is going to play again on this tour. We're going to give ourselves two or three days to see how it settles down."
The task of deciding whether Ellison and Smith stay or go largely falls to Robinson. She will collect medical advice from sources in New Zealand before any replacement players are put on stand-by.
Canterbury's Ryan Crotty and Wellington's Tim Bateman, who is on tour with the New Zealand Maori team, loom as logical, but untested, options if Smith or Ellison fails to mend, while Wellington's Alapati Leiua may be an outside chance.
"Ben has the type of injury it is possible to play with but we want to make sure we get people to give us the right opinion on it," Foster said.
Ellison and Smith are unavailable for the second tour match against Italy on Sunday morning (NZT), confirming the tried and true Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu midfield combination will be reinstated and unleashed on the Azzurri.
"They will both be out for this week," Foster said of Ellison and Smith.
With Aaron Cruden also expected to be given a run at No 10, Dan Carter may have to come off the bench and revert back to where he started his career, if there are further casualties at second five-eighths or centre.
"If you look at the mix it's probably going to be Dessie who covers midfield," Foster said.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has already signalled there will be other changes for Italy. In the forward pack, locks Sam Whitelock and Luke Romano started against the Scots, meaning Ali Williams and Brodie Retallick could take their spots this week.
"I'm very excited," Williams said. "The team hasn't been officially named yet but for a lot of us it's chance. The team last week set the bar and for us it's a challenge to raise it. It's a chance to show we deserve to be in the jersey and we can put it in a better place."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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