Henry ponders - what is the All Blacks best side?

Graham Henry. Photo / Getty Images
Graham Henry. Photo / Getty Images

With four tests to go before the All Blacks kickoff the rugby World Cup against Tonga the team's selectors have yet to make up their minds about what 15 players constitute their best lineup.

Some places are not up for grabs; captain Richie McCaw and first five-eighth Dan Carter are among those assured of their starting places in the top team, but for others the challenge lies in making the 30-man squad to contest the tournament first before thinking about forcing their way into the run-on side.

Saturday's Tri-Nations test against South Africa in Wellington will give the contenders another chance to pencil their names on the seating plan for the team bus and the intense competition for places brings a smile to assistant coach Wayne Smith's face.

"We don't really know what our top 15 is at this point. There's a lot of competition, a lot of guys playing for spots and that's a good way to be.

"We're trying to get everyone in the squad competitive and I think you saw that at the weekend (against Fiji). We've got a lot of outside backs who are injured - all the outside backs that played on the weekend were great and that's put a lot of heat on and that's what we're looking for," he said yesterday.

Crusaders lock Sam Whitelock, who came off the bench in Friday's 60-14 win against Fiji in Dunedin, said the squad were eager to impress the selectors.

"The energy and excitement is there for everyone. All the guys here are very competitive, if they weren't they probably wouldn't be here. That goes through playing cards in down time or on the training field," he said.

Hurricanes fullback Cory Jane is back in the equation this weekend after from a dislocated finger but wing Hosea Gear and utility back Richard Kahui will not be risked as they get over hamstring strains. Long-term injury casualties Israel Dagg (thigh) and Isaia Toeava (hip) remain on the sidelines, but are on track to play in the national provincial championship before the squad for the away legs of the Tri-Nations is chosen, as is prop Tony Woodcock.

With the All Blacks keen to manage the workloads of players involved in the extended Super 15 season the Crusaders trio of Brad Thorn, Kieran Read and Owen Franks, along with Blues hooker Keven Mealamu, will be rested again this weekend after also sitting out Friday's test.

Poor weather in Wellington yesterday forced the squad indoors for training and they were intent on tidying up their work at the breakdown after McCaw's criticism of that area after Carisbrook.

"It's fair to say we were a little bit rusty there (at the breakdown) so we've done a bit of work and no doubt we'll carry on doing that over the weeks. It'll be a constant thing we'll have to work on," said Whitelock.

The Crusaders' 22-year-old said he was keen to get some more game time after spending eight weeks on the sidelines during the Super 15 season.

"Getting back into it and playing well week in, week out, is definitely a focus for me."

While the All Blacks' sights were set on the task in hand against South Africa, the coaching staff were trying to marry their immediate goals with building for the World Cup.

"We've got an eye on the World Cup. Obviously you've got to have your planning in place, but we really want to win. We want to win Tri-Nations we want to retain the Bledisloe Cup and we want to put a marker in the sand too.

"There's a lot of excitement in this team about playing a World Cup at home and you've got to use that to your advantage," Smith said.

New Zealand and South Africa name their sides for Saturday's test on Wednesday.

- NZPA

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