Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

All Blacks: Right wing proves tricky

On-form Smith and Jane make choice tough for selectors.

Ben Smith of the Highlanders has been in superb form this season, playing every game. Photo / Getty Images
Ben Smith of the Highlanders has been in superb form this season, playing every game. Photo / Getty Images

Hooker remains an area of concern for the All Blacks, but one of the biggest decisions the selectors might have to make for the first test against England is who to choose at right wing - Ben Smith or Cory Jane?

Both are presenting compelling arguments this season for their Super Rugby teams. Smith, the Highlanders' fullback who has played every minute of every match for Jamie Joseph's team, has again been in superb form.

He also started in every test last year - either on the right wing or, for the last five internationals, at centre in the absence of Conrad Smith. With Malakai Fekitoa's rapid rise this year at the Highlanders and resulting call-up to the 36-player All Blacks' training squad, Ben Smith is not likely to wear the No 13 jersey again in a hurry.

It was a sometimes painful learning experience for the Highlanders' player, who must be favourite to take the No 14 jersey for the first test at Eden Park on June 7.

Jane's knee injury last year opened the door for Smith. Jane played only two tests last year following his return and while the 31-year-old has played well on the right wing in an impressive Hurricanes team this season, his form hasn't been as compelling as Smith's. These All Blacks selectors are loyal too, and given Smith's importance to the team last year - he was replaced only four times in those 14 tests - all signs point to him starting his 27th test in Auckland if he remains fit.

It brings another edge to tomorrow night's clash between the Hurricanes and Highlanders in Wellington, and following the serious leg injuries to lock Luke Romano and outside back Charles Piutau, the national selectors will be hoping no one else joins the casualty ward as the New Zealand teams increasingly fight among themselves for survival.

Hurricanes' hooker Dane Coles is out with a back problem, but, while the selectors have brought in Nathan Harris and Liam Coltman to back up Coles and veteran Keven Mealamu, neither of the two youngsters is likely to win an All Blacks debut if the two incumbents remain fit.

The two training camps in Christchurch and Wellington will provide further information to the selectors, but a third hooker has yet to press his case.

Another factor the selectors must decide on is the forwards/backs split of their final 31-player squad. It could be either 17 forwards and 14 backs or 18 forwards and 13 backs. They are likely to retain three halfbacks - Aaron Smith, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and TJ Perenara - and might include three first-fives - Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett and Colin Slade - given their past injury problems in the position. Slade's form at the Crusaders and ability to play wing or fullback in the absence of Piutau could make him invaluable. Fekitoa's ability to play in both midfield positions and also on the wing might see him make the final cut ahead of Crusader Ryan Crotty.

- APNZ

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