Luke Braid's stocks are on the rise.
After being left out of the All Blacks' 38-man wider training squad announced last week, it would be easy to assume, despite his strong form, the Blues' forager wasn't in the national picture.
The truth is he is next in line.
The inclusion of only one openside, Sam Cane, was the major talking point of Steve Hansen's first muster, which gets under way in Mt Maunganui today.
Naming 10 uncapped players created interest but, given the importance of the role, Cane's lonely status was perplexing.
The Chiefs' seven has justifiably retained the right to again don Richie McCaw's jersey with the All Blacks captain on leave until after next month's three-test series against France.
Until now, there was uncertainty about the next deputy. The Crusaders' Matt Todd and Cane's five-test team-mate Tanerau Latimer were also in contention.
Hansen has kept his cards close to his chest by leaving out the trio, feeling he would benefit more from casting an eye over blindside flankers Steven Luatua and Brad Shields, rather than players he already understood.
"We've only taken one [openside] to the camps because we know the other three candidates really well and we don't see the urgency to bring them in," Hansen told Sunday News last week.
In life, and sport, there is always a need for a contingency plan.
Cane missed Friday's clash against the Hurricanes in Wellington with a back strain. And there are no guarantees he will survive the French onslaught.
Hansen and fellow selectors Ian Foster and Grant Fox are yet to decide whether to carry one or two opensides next month, but if a second is deemed necessary, or if Cane succumbs to injury, it seems Braid will get the call-up to follow in his brother's footsteps.
"We haven't confirmed in our own minds whether we'll take one or two into the June series. If it's two we'll have to pick one other. For me personally it's probably Luke Braid at the moment," Hansen said.
"He's playing really well. He's got a good head on him.
"He's strong over the ball and he understands the game really well."
Hansen hinted the decision would hinge on Cane proving his versatility. During the two camps it appears he will be asked to become familiar with the other loose forward roles, enabling the squad to carry more openside cover.
"Richie can sometimes play eight or six," Hansen said. "That lets you carry another seven. Do we want to do that with Cane? That will be a discussion closer to the time. If that's the case we'll take two if not we'll take one."
The prospect of an All Blacks debut is both confirmation Braid has been in career-best form this season, and that Todd has slipped down the pecking order after being called into camp to cover McCaw's foot injury during the World Cup.
Last year Braid was a surprise choice to captain the shambolic Blues. It was an unfair task for a young man, but it also adds to Hansen's endorsement of his knowledge and maturity. Without the captaincy burden Braid has thrived. He's been at the forefront of the Blues' hunger and has clearly impressed those who matter.
Either way, Braid's time in a black jersey will come.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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