All Black panel gives 'old guard' last chance in series against Ireland.
The All Black panel has settled on Andy Ellis and Piri Weepu as halfbacks for the three-test series against Ireland.
The 'old guard' have held off the challenge from the rising talents of Aaron Smith, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and TJ Perenara in what was the toughest call in picking the 30-man squad.
Coach Steve Hansen with selectors Ian Foster and Grant Fox have banked on their hunch that the All Black group can reignite Weepu's game after it smouldered throughout the Super 15 series.
His prolonged fitness problems and modest impact in a misfiring Blues group were not recommendations he should be retained in black. However, the panel looked beyond those problems.
They felt Ellis had been consistently reliable and is a strong organiser while Weepu's experience in 56 tests and his range of skills remained a valuable asset for the All Blacks.
Weepu apparently reached his weigh-in targets at the All Black camps and impressed enough in the practice and theory sessions held for the wider training squads in Auckland and Wellington.
But he and Ellis have also been put on notice that if their work is not sharp enough, the youngsters are hovering for the Rugby Championship against the Wallabies, Springboks and Pumas.
Smith's sharp delivery and growing authority has impressed while the combative approaches of Kerr-Barlow and Perenara have encouraged the selectors.
If the 30-strong squad was picked solely on form, a number of prominent players would be heading for leave rather than assembling tomorrow in Auckland.
However, the All Black selectors and coaches will bank on resurrecting several rugby souls and developing a youthful collection.
Three rookie Chiefs forwards will be on that list probably with the exciting Hurricanes backline talent of Julian Savea and Beauden Barrett.
Forwards Sam Cane, Brodie Retallick and Ben Tameifuna are in line to make the jump up to the black jersey after outstanding campaigns in a concerted Chiefs pack.
Cane has job-shared flanker duties with Tanerau Latimer but gets a chance to start against the Blues tonight at Albany because his senior colleague has knee tendon trouble. The 20-year-old has been identified as a better bet than Latimer, Luke Braid or Matt Todd to understudy Richie McCaw and deputise for the captain when he needs some respite.
Retallick has been a revelation at lock, consistently dominant in the air and also delivering muscle and skill in the scrum and round the field.
The opensider and lock will play tonight but tighthead prop Tameifuna is on the bench after filling in with distinction for Ben Afeaki as he recovered from a broken arm.
Retallick is the elder statesman of the trio at 21.
The squad is likely to split into 16 forwards and 14 backs with several extras nominated who are recovering from injury and nearly ready to play.
One of those will be hooker Keven Mealamu who is about a fortnight away from being able to suit up.
Savea is the only wing remaining from the initial training squad selection after Cory Jane and Richard Kahui were injured and ruled out for the series with Ireland.
If anything Savea has shown stronger form since his promotion and he should start in the initial Eden Park test with Hosea Gear, Zac Guildford or perhaps utility Ben Smith on the other flank.
With the selectors happy to limit themselves to two halfbacks they could pick another wing-fullback such as Andre Taylor or Rudi Wulf, think about Robbie Fruean or offer Barrett a chance to learn at the hip of Daniel Carter and Aaron Cruden, just as Cane will do alongside McCaw.
Carter has recovered from injury and is the premier first five-eighths with quality backup from Cruden but both are susceptible to damage.
There is room in the group to pick Barrett and give him time to study and soak up ideas from his colleagues while also getting some matchplay as a backup five-eighths, fullback or wing.
Wynne Gray's Likely squad
Sonny Bill Williams
Richie McCaw (c)
We asked nzherald.co.nz readers to pick their starting XV for the first test against Ireland next week. This is how more than 5000 voted.
Israel Dagg 83%
Ben Smith 17%
Julian Savea 47%
Hosea Gear 39%
Zac Guildford 14%
Conrad Smith 95%
Tamati Ellison 5%
Sonny Bill Williams 77%
Ma'a Nonu 23%
Daniel Carter 87%
Aaron Cruden 12%
Beauden Barrett 1%
Andy Ellis 51%
Aaron Smith 28%
Tawera Kerr-Barlow 12%
Piri Weepu 9%
Kieran Read 87%
Victor Vito 11%
Luke Whitelock 1%
Richie McCaw 97%
Sam Cane 3%
Adam Thomson 93%
Brad Shields 7%
Sam Whitelock 48%
Brodie Retallick 29%
Ali Williams 12%
Luke Romano 11%
Owen Franks 88%
Charlie Faumuina 6%
Ben Tameifuna 6%
Andrew Hore 67%
Keven Mealamu 22%
Hika Elliot 11%
Tony Woodcock 86%
Ben Franks 14%