Rugby: All Blacks look to test combinations

All Black lock Sam Whitelock trains with teammates during a drills session at Peffermill...
All Black lock Sam Whitelock trains with teammates during a drills session at Peffermill University in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Hannah Johnston/Getty Images)
The All Blacks' opening international against Scotland will be a test of themselves.

They have the skill and firepower to bag the victory on Monday at Murrayfield, an outcome acknowledged, it seems, by nearly everyone interested in rugby.

Staunch Scots differ, but their caveat list is extensive; from the All Blacks having a shocker, losing six men to the bin through the whims of rookie referee Jerome Garces, the weather being atrocious and the game being dominated by lineouts and penalties.

There will be areas where the All Blacks' response will be challenged hard and that is exactly what the selectors want.

They have split the squad for this test and the next against Italy in Rome because they are keen to see how a number of players respond without the comfort of their usual teammates.

Some mini partnerships like the Tamati Ellison/Ben Smith liaison in midfield and the Luke Romano/Sam Whitelock second row combination are given more time together.

The only new squad members, Dane Coles and Tawera Kerr-Barlow, are on the bench and barring some freakish circumstance will get debut time.

It is that sort of mix-and-match selection, with captain Richie McCaw and his deputy Daniel Carter both picked, that adds weight to the theory that Kieran Read will skipper the side next week in Rome.

Coach Steve Hansen thought it unlikely anyone in the 32-strong squad would play all four tour tests against Scotland, Italy, Wales and England.

"The first thing we decided we wanted to do was not to pick a perceived A and a B team," he said, "with all the experience in one game and not in the other.

"Then it was a matter about thinking about the future and saying let's think about some combinations.

"They were important because of the time guys had played together before and then the teams fell into place pretty quickly.

"We believe we can field a really strong side against both [Scotland and Italy]."

While some might find that disrespectful, Hansen said it was more a reflection that they believed they had a strong squad with competition for places.

One example was Victor Vito. He was the backup No8 to Read in the squad and a fine player who rarely got a chance to start.

He had played strongly in that position for the Hurricanes but had been used more on the blindside with the All Blacks.

This test was a huge platform for Vito and Adam Thomson to remind the panel of their test class.

Piri Weepu is a similar case. He had taken on some strong messages about his condition and had trimmed down.

"We are seeing a sharper, fitter-looking Piri so long may it last," said Hansen.

He had looked over footage of Scotland who carried some size in the pack and would have lifted their spirits after beating the Wallabies then two tests midyear in the Pacific.

Rookie tier one referee Garces had a history of sinbinning players in the Heineken Cup and the All Blacks would need to maintain their discipline, especially at the breakdown.

"All we can do is have productive paranoia and make sure we plan well for the expected and the unexpected and make sure we have got our game sorted so the referee does not have a big influence on the game."

- By Wynne Gray of the New Zealand Herald in Edinburgh

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