Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

All Blacks: Outside backs Hansen's big worry

All Black coach is confident Nonu and Smith will be fit to play.

The All Blacks' outside backs, rather than the midfield, are Steve Hansen's biggest concerns heading into the June tests against France.

Coach Hansen is confident veterans Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith will recover from their respective knee and head injuries, and Smith yesterday would have helped ease any lingering fears over his concussion when he said, "I'm feeling fine. I've felt surprisingly well since I took the knock."

Assuming they recover, and Smith is targeting a return for the Hurricanes in a fortnight, Hansen said the midfield could be "very, very strong".

He has also named several exciting back-ups in his 38-man wider training squad for the two Mt Maunganui training camps to be held this month. New to the midfield mix is Francis Saili from the Blues, with teammate Rene Ranger returning to the fold after his three tests in 2010.

Highlander Tamati Ellison, with his team in South Africa and heading to Japan after the Super rugby competition, was the only fit current All Black not named in the squad - apart from the resting Richie McCaw - but Hansen said the 30-year-old wasn't necessarily out of the picture, a common theme yesterday.

A more significant announcement will come on June 2 when the 30-player squad for the three France tests is named a week before the first test at Eden Park.

In talking about his main area of concern, Hansen suggested Blues fullback Charles Piutau, another newcomer, could have a role to play here.

"It's probably our back three," said Hansen of his biggest worry. "With the likes of [Richard] Kahui and [Cory] Jane both being injured. We've got one or two slots up for grabs there."

Israel Dagg will be fullback, with Ben Smith his backup.

Julian Savea cemented himself as a first-choice wing last year but has his own issues to deal with, both legal and domestic. Wing Hosea Gear has 14 All Black caps, but was overtaken by Savea last year, which brings us to 21-year-old Piutau, the former sevens player shining in a resurgent Blues. Piutau can not only play fullback but also left wing, something endorsed by Hansen.

Piutau's Blues teammate Frank Halai has also come into the environment for the first time after impressing this season. Hansen's forwards appear more settled, although Steven Luatua has quite rightly forced his way in and 22-year-old Dominic Bird is the third Crusaders lock in the squad after impressing during limited opportunities behind Sam Whitelock and Luke Romano.

Chiefs tighthead prop Ben Afeaki's form has been rewarded, with fellow front-rower Jeff Toomaga-Allen from the Hurricanes also getting the nod.

Notable omissions were flankers Luke Braid, Matt Todd and Ardie Savea. Crusaders No8 Luke Whitelock, a surprise addition to Hansen's training group last year, also missed out.

Wider training squad

Blues: Frank Halai, Steven Luatua, Keven Mealamu, Charles Piutau, Rene Ranger, Francis Saili, Piri Weepu and Ali Williams.

Chiefs: Ben Afeaki, Sam Cane, Aaron Cruden, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Liam Messam and Brodie Retallick.

Hurricanes: Beauden Barrett, Dane Coles, Ben Franks, TJ Perenara, Julian Savea, Brad Shields, Conrad Smith, Jeff Toomaga-Allen and Victor Vito.

Crusaders: Dominic Bird, Daniel Carter, Wyatt Crockett, Israel Dagg, Owen Franks, Kieran Read, Luke Romano, Tom Taylor and Samuel Whitelock.

Highlanders: Hosea Gear, Andrew Hore, Ma'a Nonu, Aaron Smith, Ben Smith and Tony Woodcock.

- APNZ

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