Snook: Highlanders dodge ABs squad spanner

SOUTHERN MAN: Fullback Ben Smith is one of just four Highlanders named in the 35-man All Blacks training squad.
SOUTHERN MAN: Fullback Ben Smith is one of just four Highlanders named in the 35-man All Blacks training squad.

Just as Super Rugby starts warming up with the Kiwi sides demonstrating some top form, an additional spanner has been thrown in the works to test the coaching staff.

The naming of a 36-man player training squad, the first All Blacks group for 2014, has been announced with these players required to attend camps over the next couple of weeks leading in to the test series with England.

In between, they will be back at their franchise, with most playing three rounds of games before the international break.

Already a tough ask with games stretching over six months, travel to distant shores and the constant battering of bodies, it will be interesting to see which sides best handle the coming and goings of the next three weeks and the break that follows.

The Crusaders will have 10 All Blacks to concern themselves with, the Hurricanes nine, the Blues seven, the Chiefs six, while the Highlanders will be upset the least with only four in the training squad and probably only the two Smiths - Aaron and Ben - going on in to the full All Blacks set-up.

With the Highlanders sitting on 30 points, only five behind the top New Zealand team the Chiefs, and a further point behind the top of the table Sharks, the lack of potential All Blacks will provide them with the best opportunity to fight their way in to a top six finish.

Their next game is in Wellington against the Hurricanes, who have a hefty number with the All Blacks, including many key individuals, while the following week they line up under the roof in Dunedin against the Crusaders.

Although the Hurricanes and in particular the Crusaders, have hit some new heights of late, the travelling back and forward between camps and the possible change of mindset amongst many players, could just give the Highlanders the edge they are after.

If they can pull either of these games off then they must have a real chance to pick up points in Brisbane before the rest period.

With the Chiefs, who are yet to hit the form that has taken them to two titles, enjoying a bye this week, they will get some much needed breathing time before they head to Wellington and then back to New Plymouth to face the Waratahs.

The Hurricanes have the advantage of two home games against the Highlanders and Chiefs before travelling to Eden Park.

However, winning against three New Zealand franchises in as man weeks is a problematic task, if not an almost impossible one.

On form, the All Blacks-laden Crusaders will whip the stodgy Sharks in Christchurch this weekend and follow up with victories against the Highlanders away and the Force at home. It is hard to imagine this group losing their rhythm during this period, especially when you consider one of the camps is in Christchurch, so they won't be leaving home.

Who knows what the Blues will throw up? Following a bye this weekend, they meet the Sharks and then the Hurricanes at Eden Park.

With home advantage they have a chance for a win.

Every New Zealand franchise is a good position to clinch a spot in the six-team playoffs.

It's just a pity that they have to play each other twice and don't get to play against some of the lesser sides.

In the meantime, the huge number of coaching, medical, mental and physiological staff will be combining their intellectual might and making a plan to cover the next six weeks.

It will be an interesting period, with coaches and fans alike keeping their fingers crossed that they don't lose any key players.

The big question will be whether or not the Highlanders can take advantage of only having a couple of All Blacks.

Ian Snook has coached professionally for the past 25 years in New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England, Ireland, Japan and Italy.

Taranaki Daily News