Whitelock injury gives Bird shot at All Blacks

FLYING HIGH: Dominic Bird has gone from provincial rugby to the All Blacks within a year.
FLYING HIGH: Dominic Bird has gone from provincial rugby to the All Blacks within a year.

All Blacks trials are no longer in vogue but Dominic Bird has one against the Waratahs on Friday night.

The fractured finger Sam Whitelock sustained during last Friday night’s 28-19 loss to the Chiefs has catapulted Bird into contention for an All Blacks jersey ahead of next month’s three-test series against France.

Last night All Blacks coach Steve Hansen confirmed Whitelock’s injured ring finger meant he could be unavailable for up to six weeks and is unlikely to play in the French series starting June 8.

‘‘Sam will undergo a follow-up X-ray after which we should have a clearer picture of the injury and what that means for his return to rugby,’’ Hansen said.

At 2.06m Bird isn’t physically equipped to slip under the radar. Whitelock’s injury and the recent retirement of 77-test lock Ali Williams have ensured there is no chance of that happening in the short-term, either.

Twelve months ago Bird hadn’t even played Super Rugby; his sole appearance for Canterbury was as a substitute against Manawatu in 2011 and he was knocking about with his Lincoln University club.

Now, with Whitelock out and Williams declaring his international days are over, Bird is on the cusp of being named in the All Blacks squad after being enlisted for his wider training squad camp in Mt Maunganui.

Crusaders head coach Todd Blackadder yesterday confirmed Bird will start his side’s next match, against the Waratahs at AMI Stadium, alongside All Black Luke Romano.

The cool-headed Bird has impressed Blackadder in his first Super Rugby season.

‘‘It was really seamless when he came in at the start of the year for Luke Romano (when he was injured),’’ Blackadder noted.

‘‘He did a bloody great job. It really is a great chance for Dom to play some footy because I know he is desperate to.’’

Bird, 22, has repeatedly been preferred ahead of former All Black Tom Donnelly for the bench duties this year.

Although he has often been in the Crusaders’ reserves, Bird has had little cause to regret not accepting a fat cheque to join John Kirwan’s Blues this year.

The dividends from that gamble will be multiplied if he’s listed in the All Blacks squad next Sunday.

Jeremy Thrush joined the wider training camp following Williams’ retirement but is unlikely to be preferred ahead of the Crusader second rower.

Whitelock has not been replaced at the camp. The number of quality locks has begun to thin in recent months.

Chiefs co-captain Craig Clarke has signed to play in Ireland. Blues lock Anthony Boric, a member of the 2011 All Blacks’ World Cup squad, is contracted to a Japanese club and has been battling injury.

The extent of Whitelock’s injury, he was replaced by Bird in the 72nd minute at Waikato Stadium, was only confirmed when he had an X-ray on Saturday evening.

Brodie Retallick, with 13 test caps, will now be the All Blacks’ senior lock. Like Romano (11 tests), Retallick only made his test debut last year.

Bird is a good chance of being named on the bench for the opener at Eden Park.

Blackadder, meanwhile, hasn’t had to recruit an extra player to replace Whitelock because Jimmy Tupou and Donnelly can provide cover.

Although bad luck for Whitelock and the All Blacks, Blackadder is unlikely to be too downcast about the lock being sidelined.

It means at least one of his internationals will not return from the test series in a fatigued state as the Crusaders look to secure a place in the play-offs by winning their final three matches against the Highlanders, Chiefs and Hurricanes.

The Press