Vito faces nervous wait as Hansen trims squad
TOBY ROBSON IN NEW PLYMOUTH
Victor Vito may face a few nervous weeks as All Blacks coach Steve Hansen crunches the numbers and weighs his options ahead of the Rugby Championship.
With a 3-0 series win over France under his belt Hansen's attention will now turn to nutting out the 28 man squad to take on Australia, South Africa and Argentina, starting in August.
Injury could yet play a part with three rounds of Super Rugby and its finals to play out, but Hansen made it clear yesterday the answers to most of his questions had been found during the June test series.
"We'll watch a bit of form over the next few weeks, but the important questions we wanted answered were answered, some of them positively and some negatively," he said. "We're going to name a squad of 28 plus three wider training group players, so we'll have a squad of 31 training early in the week then they'll go back and play ITM Cup."
The return of captain Richie McCaw effectively means two players will drop out altogether and three more relegated to holding tackle bags.
Hansen wasn't mentioning any names, but late call-ups lock Jeremy Thrush and openside Matt Todd must be the logical men to drop out of the mix.
Likewise, unused Blues project Francis Saili and rookie Charles Piutau should remain, if only as training squad members, due to the lack of depth in the midfield and wing.
That leaves loose forwards Steven Luatua and Vito. The pair struck contrasting figures after the 24-9 win in New Plymouth if body language is an accurate guide.
"It's weird to say I'm an All Black," Luatua buzzed after his test debut. "But I'm proud to be part of this mix... I had three weeks to prepare so I used that to my advantage.
It's pretty huge. To get that first one out of the way, under the belt."
Vito would not have been so elated after not quite grabbing his big chance, his timing unfortunate on a tricky night where the All Blacks performance had the same rusty feel as the first test effort at Eden Park.
It was a solid effort with some nice touches, but perhaps not the one Hansen hoped would rip the No 6 jersey off Liam Messam's back.
Luatua didn't do that either with just nine minutes to stamp his mark, but his potential is obvious and his ability to cover lock holds appeal.
Throw into the mix the selector's plans to try McCaw in conjunction with Sam Cane during the Rugby Championship and a third blindside may become surplus to requirements.
Vito's challenge will be to erase doubt during the Hurricanes remaining matches against the Chiefs, Highlanders and Crusaders, but he won't look back on June with any great fondness.
Others will be more enthused. The selectors have positive affirmation on the wings, at hooker, loose head prop and halfback.
Hansen dubbed Ben Smith "back of the series" and the selectors are known to be collectively thrilled with Rene Ranger's efforts, including his only start in New Plymouth.
Throw in Julian Savea, Piutau's debut, Jane's encouraging rehabilitation and Frank Halai's still untapped resource and suddenly there are options out wide.
Dane Coles made every post a winner after being thrust ahead of senior rakes Keven Mealamu and Andrew Hore, while Wyatt Crockett moved at least level with aging loose head Tony Woodcock in the pecking order.
At halfback, Piri Weepu disappointed in New Plymouth but can be cut some slack after his forward runners left him stranded for options during the first half.
Regardless, Aaron Smith was a beacon in the No 9, returning to form with a blinder in Christchurch, while Tawera Kerr-Barlow continued his improvement as a test player.
After three weeks of chop and change, Hansen said there would be only minimal changes through the Rugby Championship as form and work load took priority over risk and development.
"We said at the beginning of this series we have to take some risks and we probably created through selection two first tests of the series," he said.
"We could have easily had continuity and looked to get another really convincing performance from Christchurch, but that wouldn't have achieved what we needed to achieve and answered some of the questions."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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