Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Bird injury may play into Clarke's hands

Craig Clarke may be the answer to the All Blacks' woes at lock. Photo / Getty Images
Craig Clarke may be the answer to the All Blacks' woes at lock. Photo / Getty Images

Chiefs captain Craig Clarke was being tipped as the strongest contender for a fairytale call-up to the All Blacks today, with former All Blacks Jarrad Hoeata and Anthony Boric outside choices.

That's because Dominic Bird's All Black dream was shattered yesterday when the Crusaders lock learned he would need surgery on a ruptured shoulder muscle. As much as it was a blow for the 22-year-old, who would have otherwise been named in the national squad today, it has left the All Black selectors concerned about their lack of resources at lock.

A position of strength only two weeks ago, the All Blacks have seen Ali Williams retire, Sam Whitelock break a finger and now Bird damage his shoulder - leaving them reliant on Brodie Retallick and Luke Romano for the three-test series against France.

Jeremy Thrush, the Hurricanes lock called in to the wider training squad after Williams announced his retirement, is now likely to be on the bench for the first test at Eden Park.

Given the inevitable physicality of the French series, All Black coach Steve Hansen will be reluctant to operate with just three locks in his squad but his choices for a fourth are limited. Options include bringing in a seasoned campaigner who could plug the gap short-term.

Clarke would arguably be in pole position. He is ultra-reliable if a touch limited. He wins lineout ball, hits rucks and is a natural leader. He'd have the mental fortitude to get by if required on the field. Hoeata and Boric have test experience but not so much current form, which would be the same for another former All Black, Tom Donnelly. The more radical option would be trying to persuade Williams to reconsider.

The Blues captain would have been in the final squad of 31 until he decided to pull the plug. Hansen considered the 77-test veteran to be in good enough form to earn his place but is believed to have told Williams that no matter what happened in 2013, he wouldn't be selected for the end of year tour. Hansen, as he reveals in the Herald on Sunday today, wants to refresh his side later this year, grow his young leaders and provide some of his old stagers with an extended pre-season.

Williams would have stayed at home to try and fix his damaged knee but, presented with the future scenario, the Blues captain decided it would be best to go out on his terms.

While there would be an element of concern about whether Williams could get his head in the right space having spent the last week getting used to being retired from test football, he is by Hansen's reckoning, the fourth best lock in the country.

An alternative would be to use the now vacant squad spot to call up another loose forward, most notably Brad Shields, and expose him to the rigours of test rugby now, knowing he will almost certainly be called up to tour later in the year.

The dramas at lock will be relatively shortlived, as Whitelock is expected back after the French series, while Bird may be back in time for the Rugby Championship, according to the statement released by the Crusaders.

"Following further medical assessment today the Crusaders can confirm that [Dominic] Bird has ruptured his left pectoralis major tendon and will require surgery later this week. The injury will see him out of the remainder of the 2013 Investec Super Rugby tournament."

- Herald on Sunday

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