Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

All Blacks: Twelve questions, eight answers

Selectors face a tough task as they wrestle with getting the right combination for the All Blacks' backline against France

The most awkward task for the All Black selectors will be trimming 12 contenders into eight backline positions.

Much of their debate will be about the makeup of their fullback, wing, centre and second five grouping for the three tests against France this month, which will be revealed tomorrow.

Other tricky choices will be the third halfback, extra loose forward and prop in the 31-strong squad which will surely have No 8 Kieran Read as interim captain.

But most inspection will be focused on the backline decisions away from the three halfbacks and three five-eighths.

The 12 in contention are Ma'a Nonu, Francis Saili, Tamati Ellison, Conrad Smith, Rene Ranger, Tom Taylor, Hosea Gear, Julian Savea, Frank Halai, Ben Smith, Charles Piutau and Israel Dagg.

A hint about some of the resolutions may have come yesterday with Gear's announcement he was off to Toulouse, following Ellison who is going to Japan and Ranger who has signed for Montpellier but is tipped to be looking at his out-clause.

A further uncertainty will be any injuries last night to Crusaders and Hurricanes or in tonight's return clash between the Blues and Highlanders.

The sight of squad prospect Jeffery Toomaga-Allen being stretchered away before the first camp was a strong reminder about the sport's cruel fates.

Initial comparisons between Nonu and Saili and Aaron Smith and Piri Weepu will not happen tonight, as the Highlanders duo are - strangely - both on the bench.

Gear and Halai will duel on one flank and may both join Ellison on the not required list.

The final absentee from the back division may be Taylor who was called up as cover on the tour last year and offers versatility, solidity and superb goalkicking.

He looks like being squeezed out by Piutau, but if the panel feels Ranger's likely exit clouds his value, Taylor would be a strong alternative.

Versatility will be the strong point in the back three. Dagg, Ben Smith and Piutau are all able to play in several positions, with possible fullback cover from Beauden Barrett, while Savea must be a certainty in the No 11 jersey.

"Same old, same old" has been doing the rounds since the squads were picked for the training camps. The retirement of Ali Williams, injury exit of Sam Whitelock and overseas contracts for Ellison and Gear trimmed some of that sentiment.

There will be a new captain because Richie McCaw will not be ready until the Rugby Championship, while others like Sonny Bill Williams have left and some like Zac Guildford have not rediscovered enough form.

Alterations in the 17 forwards/14 backs split will come because of the reduced squad limit and decisions to take three halfbacks and multiple five eighths and hookers to cope with age, injury concerns and style choices.

Injury and retirement pushed Jeremy Thrush into the training squad and now a probable place as a grafting, jumping hardworking option in the test squad.

- NZ Herald

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