The All Blacks face fitness concerns of their own
With Billy Vunipola ruled out of the tour, the All Blacks fans cannot afford to gloat as they have a number of fitness concerns ahead of the Series
Full-back: Ben Smith
The mercurial full-back who resembles Clark Kent off the pitch, but turns into Superman on it (albeit dressed in black) has sat out the last couple of games with an ankle injury, incurred against the Stormers but the smoke signals suggest the injury should be overcome by June 25.
Likely to step up if not fit: The pocket-sized excitement machine, Damien McKenzie, has been turning on the style for the Chiefs, but it’s the younger brother of Beauden, the 6ft 5in Jordie Barrett, who has the composure and importantly, the kicking percentages to make a difference. He’s only 19, but don’t be surprised if he’s drafted into the squad.
Wing: Israel Dagg
Better known as a full-back, who won the 2011 World Cup, the Canterbury Crusader side a passable impression of a very fine wing last years, plundering eight tries in an outstanding season. This year, he’s been laid low with a knee-injury since mid-March, and is due back in early June, not giving him much time to get up to speed by the time the squad is announced on June 8
Likely to step up if not fit: Waisake Naholo
The Highlander has had a mixed Super Rugby season, scoring freely but is just back from a red-card and subsequent one-week ban for a late tackle against the Blue Bulls. If Naholo is overlooked, expect his hot-stepping team-mate, Nehe Milner-Skudder, himself recovering from a nightmare near 18-months on the sidelines, to get a call
Outside-centre: Sonny Bill Williams is working his way back after a nine-month injury-enforced break after damaging his ACL in the Rio Olympics and he will be left to sweat over his place with Highlander Malakai Fekitoa and the Canes’ Vince Aso, in fine form.
Inside-centre: Ryan Crotty is super-dependable for the in-from Crusaders and he’ll be pushed hard by youngster Anton Lienert-Brown, who can play at 12 and 13 and recently spurned the Crusaders to stay with the Chiefs, while ‘Mini Bus’, Hurricanes centre Ngani Laumpape is being backed for a call-up after 12 tries in Super Rugby so far.
Wing: Julian Savea
With 45 tries in 52 appearances, Savea is the player the Lions fear most and the Hurricane has been in prolific form so far in Super Rugby, crossing the whitewash seven times in 10 appearances. If Savea pulls up lame, expect Blues speedster Reiko Ioane to get some backing if Savea pulls up lame.
Fly-half: Beauden Barrett/Aaron Cruden
Barrett is the most dangerous broken-field runner in the world, but due to his iffy place-kicking – he hadn’t kicked for nearly two months until the weekend – there are calls for Cruden not be given the No 10 shirt and Barrett to slot in at No 15. That’s a long-shot but Cruden has been in exemplary form for the Chiefs this year and is the more dependable goal kicker.
Scrum-half Aaron Smith
Smith, for a couple of years, the best scrum-half in the world, until off-the-field indiscretions upset his rhythm last year. Pushing him hard is the Hurricanes’ No 9 TJ Perenara, who would walk into any other team on the planet.
No 8 Kieran Read
In the same way as the Lions fans held their head in their hands, when Billy Vunipola was ruled out, New Zealand held their collective breath when they heard Kieran Read was laid up in a Japanese hospital with a broken thumb. The 97-cap All Black captain is expected to be fit for the Series, but may have played no rugby for two months if he lines up in the First Test. Risky.
Likely to step up if not fit: With the abrasive Liam Squire in the same boat as Read, after breaking his thumb against the Cheetahs, it may come down to the Blues’ Akira Ioane or Steven Luatua, to offer the power and precision from the base of the scrum. The Crusaders’s Jordan Taufua is a rank outsider.
Openside: Sam Cane
He maybe the more dependable, safe option, than Ardie Savea, who sets pulses racing so frequently, but Sam Cane is rock-solid in defence, powerful over the ball and possesses leadership qualities if Read and Kaino fail to make the first Test. Savea Jnr is the next cab off the rank for the All Blacks. Able to play anywhere across the backrow, and probably even wing, he has been topping the stats charts again for his metres run turnovers and tackles. A potential star of the Series, if he gets game-time.
Blindside: Jerome Kaino
Akin to Richard Hill, in going under the radar, when placed alongside long-time team-mates, Richie McCaw and Kieran Read, Kaino, nevertheless is a key component of the All Blacks backrow and his knee-injury, which should bring him back within weeks of the first Test, will be cause for considerable anxiety for Steve Hansen’s coaching team.
Likely to step up if not fit: The aforementioned Liam Squire is in a race to be fit, so Elliot Dixon or Steven Luatua, would seem most likely to get the call to slot in at blindside.
Lock: Brodie Retallick
The former World Player of the Year is a brilliant athlete, who is as likely to pop deft pass in midfield as he is to pick a ball off the top of the lineout. He has been in imperious form for the Chiefs. If he’s fit, he starts. Favourite to act as his understudy is Beauden’s brother, Scott, who is nursing a few leg injuries, but is expected to be fit for the Series.
Lock: Sam Whitelock
There is little doubt Whitelock will partner Retallick in the Test Series. The 84-cap All Black offers the grunt at the front of the lineout and is aggressive in the tight exchanges. His back up is a toss-up between Patrick Tuipulotu and Luke Romano.
Tighthead: Owen Franks
Franks may hold the record for the most Test appearances without a try (90) but he’s the anchor of the All Blacks scrum and the closest Steve Hansen has to a human immovable object.
Hooker: Dane Coles
Coles is another hooker to wear the ‘best in the world’ tag in his position. Accurate at the set-piece, he’s a brilliant all-court No 2, who is at home in the wide channels and making explosive bursts through opposition defences. The worry for Coles, and the All Blacks is that he hasn’t played for two months due to concussion concerns. Touch and go.
Likely to step up if not fit: Codie Taylor will duke it out with Nathan Harris if Coles fails to recover in time but neither player is an improvement on the brilliant Hurricane.
Loosehead: Joe Moody
Along with his durable tighthead Owen Franks, Moody was part of a Crusaders scrum that nullified the Hollywood backline of the Hurricanes by starving them of ball and he’ll be a key component of the All Blacks scrum.