Rugby: Odds of selection surprises seem slim for ABs

The potential for selection surprises against Italy this weekend is small after coach Steve Hansen signalled he would give everyone in the touring group a start, for some serious time at least, in the first two tour matches.

With three hookers, three halfbacks and a trio of five-eighths in the squad, there is some juggling to be done.

One complication may come at fullback with Israel Dagg nursing a sore tailbone and Ben Smith worried by facial injuries after the physical international against Scotland.

He and Tamati Ellison, who damaged his foot, were due to have x-rays in Rome to give the medical staff a more definite idea of their problems.

However, Hansen and his panel still have a number of options with Beauden Barrett, Cory Jane and perhaps Aaron Cruden able to play fullback in Sunday's test against Italy in Rome.

Italy who just squeezed past Tonga in a physical encounter at the weekend, are looking to sharpen their content this month as they look to make a stronger impact in the Six Nations.

Meanwhile the All Blacks are shooting for test places against Wales and England and there is some real competition mounting.

Julian Savea, Piri Weepu, Luke Romano and Victor Vito put forward strong cases to be in the starting mix if some of their buddies misfire a shade this weekend.

Aaron Smith has been the leading halfback throughout the All Back test programme and will start against Italy with Cruden his likely five-eighths partner.

Centurion hooker Keven Mealamu should begin and lock Ali Williams is due a start in a side to be captained for the first time by Kieran Read.

The powerful No 8 is being groomed for a growing leadership role in the team alongside his Crusader teammates Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter who have the official team leadership duties.

The All Black team has some robust standards to reach this week after their buddies saw off Scotland 51-22. Carter was a huge influence in that result so it will be fascinating to see how the alternate side measures up without his influence.

Cruden has the game to cut up defences as well.

His exhilarating cameo against Ireland in Hamilton until he was injured, remains one of the season highlights. In a shade over 20 minutes he danced and sowed the sort of running command which he had delivered with the Chiefs.

If he and Smith click this weekend and get enough strong possession, Italy may be chasing the sort of shadows Carter left at Murrayfield.

- By Wynne Gray in Rome