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Selection battle brewing ahead of Wales test

TOBY ROBSON IN CARDIFF
Last updated 10:09 20/11/2012
Piri Weepu, Aaron Smith
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HALFBACK BATTLE: Piri Weepu's improvement and Aaron Smith's drop in form has set up a selection battle at halfback.

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Halfback and the loose forward mix have been two of the most hotly debated topics around the selection table since the All Blacks arrived in Cardiff according to assistant coach Ian Foster.

Wins over Scotland and Italy have provided the selectors with food for thought as they consider their preferred line-up following what was billed as a virtual two-week trial, with several positions up in the air for Sunday's test against Wales at Millennium Stadium.

"We've certainly reconsidered it and there are probably two or three decisions that will be reasonably tough I would have thought," Foster said today when asked if the thinking on the top side had changed during the tour. "Some of that is based on what we've seen in just the last couple of weeks.

"We've been pretty happy with the form of all our loose forwards on this tour so if you look at the mix of the loose forwards within the 23 it's interesting.

"And yep, halfback has been pretty well discussed. People probably wouldn't have thought it would be discussed a month ago, but it has been discussed."

That statement confirms the pressure incumbent Aaron Smith has come under from Piri Weepu.

It would be a big call considering Smith's remarkable first year of test rugby, but would be true to form over the first two tests of the tour.

It also suggests the strong efforts of openside Sam Cane, against Italy, and Victor Vito, at No 8 against Scotland, has enhanced their claims.

It could be a toss up for the loose forward cover presuming the incumbent trio of Kieran Read, Richie McCaw and Liam Messam remains intact.

Foster didn't mention any other positions specifically, but skillful tight head Charlie Faumuina's progression has been noteworthy and he had some nice touches and strong set piece work in Rome.

Owen Franks has been hard to fault at his core role at scrum-time, but might be a tad nervous when the starting team is read out.

Hooker would normally be a toss up, but Keven Mealamu's calf trouble might take some of the heat out of his competition with Andrew Hore.

Foster said Mealamu's calf was progressing "better than expected", but the injury's history may be enough for the coaches to err on the side of caution.

And Hansen has been impressed with rookie Dane Coles and there is a school of thought the young Wellingtonian might sit on the bench for all four tests as the two veterans are rotated.

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"Really good actually," Hansen said when asked how he thought his new rake was going.

"I think he's added something off the bench and he's got heaps of energy hasn't he. He's done his core roles pretty well. He threw well [against Italy] and apart from one scrum, scrummed really well, so I'm pretty happy with where he's at."

Beauden Barrett is the other player whose place in the 23 might be questionable due to the rib injury he suffered against Italy. He was having x-rays in Wales today.

The All Black team to play Wales will be named on Thursday (NZT).

- Stuff

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Who was the best-performed All Blacks forward on the northern tour?

Dane Coles

Nathan Harris

Keven Mealamu

Wyatt Crockett

Charlie Faumuina

Ben Franks

Owen Franks

Joe Moody

Brodie Retallick

Luke Romano

Jeremy Thrush

Patrick Tuipulotu

Sam Whitelock

Sam Cane

Jerome Kaino

Richie McCaw

Liam Messam

Kieran Read

Vitor Vito

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