All Blacks coach Steve Hansen hints test chance for David Havili could be at hand
The moons appear to be aligning for Tasman and Crusaders fullback David Havili to make his test debut against Argentina in Buenos Aires next weekend.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen never likes to tip his hand on selections before his team naming, but on Friday before flying out from Auckland for Argentina with a strategically rejigged 28-man squad he hinted that the timing could be right for Havili.
The 22-year-old utility back was called into the Rugby Championship squad after the season-ending shoulder injury to Jordie Barrett and now Israel Dagg has also succumbed to his knee problems, he has moved further up the queue.
Given that Hansen is taking just one specialist No 10 to Argentina, and has designated Damian McKenzie, who has played so well at fullback in Ben Smith's absence, as the cover there, it would make sense for Havili to be given a run at No 15 against Argentina.
Nehe Milner-Skudder is the other player in the travelling squad capable of covering at fullback, but the All Blacks have been firm on their desire to see him remain on the wing.
Hansen said Havili, who played so well for the Crusaders at fullback during their charge to the Super Rugby title, appeared ready for the next challenge in his career.
"He's a confident young man, and plays like that," said Hansen. "He came in a little overawed, as all new All Blacks are. It can be really overwhelming.
"But we've given him enough time to get through that phase of his All Black career, and he is now starting to train well, and looks more comfortable in the environment. We're looking forward to taking the next step with him."
Hansen has a tighter call to make at No 6 to face the Pumas, with both Vaea Fifita and Jerome Kaino presenting cases for selection.
Veteran two-time World Cup-winner Kaino is back in the fold after taking some time out to deal with personal issues, while Fifita had a barnstorming first test start against Argentina in New Plymouth.
Hansen's inclination might be to give the 81-test Kaino a chance to re-stake his claim, though he could also be tempted to have another look at Fifita's rampant athleticism, unbundled so impressively in the home test against the Pumas.
"There are going to be opportunities for these guys sooner or later," said Hansen. "We'll see how they go, and we have to see how they progress. With Vaea we've already seen his play was nothing short of sensational, but there is more to his game that we want.
"David has been in the environment long enough now to be comfortable and understand more about it, and now it's probably time to see him play a bit. We'll just take one step at a time."
Hansen makes this trip to Argentina without senior locks Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock (as well as loosies Sam Cane and Liam Squire and midfielder Ryan Crotty). The last time he was without his second-row stalwarts for the same test, in Chicago last year, the All Blacks crashed to an historic defeat to Ireland.
"It's always a risk but it's also an opportunity," said Hansen. "It's about risk and reward. If we don't do things differently we're going to get to the end of the year and the three tests in the UK will become extremely difficult because you've got tired athletes."
Hansen said he was confident he had the depth and experience at lock this time to cover adequately in the form of the recalled Patrick Tuipulotu alongside Scott Barrett and Luke Romano.
"It's a different scenario," he added. "You don't get experience unless you're given it. We made seven changes [against the Pumas in New Plymouth] to give those guys that opportunity. This time we're travelling, and the responsibility is on the group of 28 that are going. We're comfortable these guys are good enough."
Meanwehile, Hansen said he was pleased young prop Tyrel Lomax had been cleared to enter New Zealand rugby ahead of schedule after being released from his contractual obligations to Australia.
"He's a New Zealander, so it's great he's coming home. I think he's a pretty handy rugby player. He was Australia under-20 player of the year in his term, and he can play tighthead, and they're a bit like hen's teeth in that they're hard to find. So it's nice to have another one."
Hansen also admitted to some concern on high about the demise of the Auckland provincial team in 2017.
"There's a lot of talent in Auckland, and what we've got to engineer is how we get that talent to have a work ethic so it can actually grow and bloom. Everyone is working hard to try do that."