Romano claims spot as AB's named

All Blacks lock Luke Romano. Photo: Getty Images
All Blacks lock Luke Romano. Photo: Getty Images
Luke Romano finds himself in the All Blacks No 4 jersey this weekend on the basis that he, of all the contenders hoping to wear it, has made the most compelling case in the last few weeks.

It's maybe more accurate to say that he's the only aspiring lock to have made played any kind of convincing hand in the prolonged absence of Brodie Retallick.

Romano has been in a three-way battle with Patrick Tuipulotu and Scott Barrett to start the last four games alongside senior lock Sam Whitelock.

That battle has materialised as a result of a family tragedy that has kept Retallick at home instead of coming to Europe and also forced him to miss the away tests against Australia, South Africa and Argentina.

The situation isn't ideal. The All Blacks don't want to be without the man they consider to be the best lock in the world, but injury and unavailability of key men has been the story of their season.

And each time they have been denied access to a senior player, the All Blacks have put a brave face on and tried to find the positives.

In this particular case the silver lining - if it could be called that - has been a forced, extended opportunity to build some depth in a position in which the All Blacks were shown to be vulnerable this time last year.

They headed on their European venture last year with neither Whitelock nor Retallick available for the first test in Chicago and they struggled to be the same team that day without their first choice combination.

It highlighted how reliant they had become on Whitelock and Retallick and how much they needed to develop alternative options to stop them being so vulnerable if they had an injury.The All Blacks coaches had hoped when they headed to Argentina in September, that all three of Barrett, Tuipulotu and Romano would deliver with every chance they were given.

But Barrett, who has been given the most game time, has been mostly so-so in the last few weeks. He's getting by rather than obviously elevating his performance.

Tuipulotu on limited rations has been much the same and only Romano has shown the drive, aggression and hunger that the All Blacks coaches were hoping to see.

His desire to get his hands on the ball and charge into the opposition has been obvious and relentless. Romano may lack the athleticism and agility of the two younger locks with whom he's in competition, but his methods are more effective nonetheless.

He's direct, bruising and powerful and Romano is also under rated or under appreciated as a distributor out of contact.

"I just think Luke is playing well," said All Blacks coach Steve Hansen on why the veteran lock is starting in Paris.

"He had a big game against Argentina and he played well last week against the Barbarians.

"We are working hard on Scooter's [Barrett's] defence as he's missing the odd tackle from time to time. We think Luke is up for this one. It is about what we want.

"We have to bring our own physicality, but I know Scooter can bring that too but that is not the big issue. It is about mixing and matching a little bit over the next few weeks to make sure we have got people who are fit and have the energy to do the job we need them to be able to do."

The thinking on selection remains fluid over the next few weeks as the coaches will assess energy levels as much as form, but the message is clear to both Barrett and Tuipulotu, that if they want to start in either of the next two tests, they need to do more than they currently are.

All Blacks team:
15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Vaea Fifita, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Kane Hames.

Reserves: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Matt Todd, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 Anton Lienert-Brown.

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