Ranger's focus is on red-and-black not All Black
Rene Ranger might be one Conrad Smith bell-ringer from being the starting All Black centre. Or, as he's learned the hard way, he might not.
That's why right now the red and blacks, not the All Blacks, are the only thing on the mind of the hard-running Blues midfielder.
Ranger is one of eight Blues players named in Steve Hansen's wider training group for a camp in Mount Maunganui starting Sunday and admits he's got some serious thinking to do as he ponders a future said to involve a pretty sweet deal from the Montpellier club in France.
But Ranger reckons it's vital he and his fellow Blues national team hopefuls keep their eyes on the ball this week as they head south looking to end a nine-year drought against the Crusaders in Christchurch tomorrow night.
It's a clash the Blues are labelling a "test match", not only because it pits the two great rivals against one another in a pivotal contest with playoff ramifications - the Blues are on 41 points, the Crusaders 39 in a tight Kiwi conference - but because it's sure to be a test of the mettle of this young squad.
Ranger is especially rapt for youngsters Steven Luatua, Charles Piutau, Francis Saili and Frank Halai who have made the wider training group on the back of some eye-catching form in Super Rugby.
"[But] they've got to put that behind them and focus on the Crusaders and come Sunday 'camp's on'. JK has been telling us to use that excitement at making the camp, and put that enthusiasm into the game".
Ranger is happy to get another sniff of an All Black jersey after not being wanted since making three appearances in 2010. But also realistic.
"It all comes down to hard work and playing consistently. I'm always excited to play for the All Blacks, it would be great to play in those June tests, but I've got to start thinking about my future as well.
"It's just another thing that's in my head. I've got to keep thinking rugby with the Blues, and making that test squad in June would be another dream come true."
Ranger says he can't be too reactive to the defections of Richard Kahui and Tamati Ellison opening the midfield back up.
"They're thinking about Ben Smith playing midfield, and Conrad [Smith] is still there, and they're all still going to be there for the World Cup. If I'm still around or not, am I going to get that game-time? That's another decision I've got to make.
"It's tough, and that's why I'm leaving it all up to the agent while I, focus on the rugby side of things."
In terms of tomorrow night, Ranger agrees with the test match assessment.
"JK is saying we're underdogs as we haven't beaten them down there for a while. The boys have to get up and be physical. We know what the Crusaders are going to bring, they'll be direct, they've got All Black forwards, and it's a great challenge for our boys.
"It's going to be one of those brutal games. It might not be fast-running or entertaining because the Crusaders like that direct game. But it's going to take a lot of character."
Kirwan has made four changes to his side that squeaked past the Melbourne Rebels last week. Jackson Willison replaces Francis Saili at second-five, while up front hooker Keven Mealamu, lock Culum Retallick and flanker Luke Braid return to a full-strength pack.
The Willison selection is notable as it sees Kirwan opt for experience and solidity ahead of excitement and fragility.
The Blues coach believes his side will need to make good decisions all night against a Crusaders side playing with urgency.
"I expect to see them more like the Brumbies game, with more edge, and more execution than they've shown across some games. When they put it together like they did against the Brumbies they're tough to topple.
"For me it's a test match, and that's how it should be."
BLUES: Charles Piutau, Frank Halai, Rene Ranger, Jackson Willison, George Moala,Chris Noakes, Piri Weepu; Peter Saili, Luke Braid, Steven Luatua, Ali Williams (c), Culum Retallick, Angus Ta'avao, Keven Mealamu, Tim Perry. Reserves: Quentin MacDonald, Sam Prattley, Anthony Boric, Brendon O'Connor, Jamison Gibson-Park,
- Fairfax Media
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