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
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
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