Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

All Blacks: Young bucks get chance to change selectors' minds

Rising stars Beauden Barrett and Luke Romano give the All Blacks selectors options to ponder. Photo / Getty Images
Rising stars Beauden Barrett and Luke Romano give the All Blacks selectors options to ponder. Photo / Getty Images

Before this tour of Europe began, the All Black selectors would have known their preferred XV.

Give or take a few choices, Steve Hansen, Ian Foster and Grant Fox would have rocked up to a selection meeting and red-inked about a dozen of their favoured side.

There would have been some in-depth banter about choices at left wing, lock and blindside flanker, a few thoughts about halfback and some more light-hearted chat about which of the two mature hookers was leading their selection tussle.

Then the wise trio would have gone about splitting up their travelling group of 32 while making sure they retained a number of combinations they wanted to consolidate.

This weekend against Italy at Stadio Olimpico they are running the best midfield of Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith and praying neither gets dinged as the back-up has dwindled.

Up front, Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu get back into their frontrow work together while Kieran Read rocks up with the captain's armband for the first time as he and halfback Aaron Smith go about their business.

They are building blocks and another way of oiling the test team patterns before the full weight of the All Blacks is sent out against Wales and England.

And if the selectors wanted to feel a little bit of the heat which has favoured the side in their stay in Rome, they would like some options at wing, lock and blindside flanker.

The reserves bench, too. Beauden Barrett has talent which suggests he can cover five-eighths, wing and fullback, which makes him a more valuable replacement than Aaron Cruden.

And can Charlie Faumuina show he can anchor a scrum better at tighthead than Ben Franks and move up a rung because of the extra front-rower on the bench rule?

Those subs' roles will evolve and may be influenced by injury.

So the strong starting heat comes at lock, blindside and left wing.

Liam Messam has made the most of his elevation since his recall to the squad and direct entry to start at blindside in Hamilton against Ireland.

When Victor Vito was damaged in the first test of that series then Read hurt in the next, Messam was called into the squad and immediate action.

It was a watershed moment for the 28-year-old who had been an All Black since 2008 without quite making his best impact. When he missed out on the World Cup squad last year, it seemed the selectors' patience had eked away as well.

But there is nothing like happenstance or fortune or a set of issues to galvanise a player.

Messam knew it.

He was on his hometrack in Hamilton, he was in the All Blacks but there was a blowtorch aimed at his muscularly athletic frame.

"It was a bit of a breakthrough, I guess, I wanted to show what I could do," he said. "I wanted to go out and have a crack and it paid off."

That test complete, Messam carried on as the starting blindside flanker throughout the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship except when he was used from the bench against the Pumas.

Adam Thomson started that game but his moderate form then stupid footwork against Scotland last week ruled him out of contesting the best test XV.

Messam's opposition is coming from Victor Vito, who is seen as the back-up to Read but can also use his immense talents in the No6 jersey.

One lock will be Sam Whitelock. His best partner for the final two tests may change depending on the opposition.

Brodie Retallick has had an exceptional season for someone so inexperienced. His skills and work-rate stand out and he is what Ali Williams used to be: a wide-ranging mobile man, who duked it out with the best at lineout and scrum, manned up in defence and topped it off by his impressive athletic ball-playing skills.

Perhaps Williams will find those treasures once more this weekend and if he does, it will be his turn to give us the "nah-nah-na-nah-nah" routine.

But at this stage Retallick and Luke Romano seem to be squaring off for the test start, perhaps getting one each with Retallick against Wales and the heavier Romano ready for a clunking afternoon of duty at Twickenham.

Out on the left wing, take your pick between Hosea Gear and Julian Savea.

The latter pitched up against Scotland and while he can lose his compass on defence, his impact sent a huge challenge Gear's way this weekend.

Savea gets another chance as well because of the injuries to Israel Dagg, Tamati Ellison and Ben Smith, to add or subtract from that performance in Edinburgh.

They will all face substantial challenges. The forwards will get a taste of the physical from Italy who are a heavy duty set-piece side while all but Savea, who is getting a repeat start, will have been twitching to make a tour statement.

The danger is they will be in a hurry, they will be over-amped to make things happen quickly.

Part of the team focus must be on settling before they try to expand their repertoire.

- NZ Herald

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