Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: All Blacks super-size squad

Liam Coltman could be offered a big break as the national side looks for a next-generation hooker. Photo / Getty Images
Liam Coltman could be offered a big break as the national side looks for a next-generation hooker. Photo / Getty Images

The All Blacks plan to take an extended squad on their end-of-year tour and are leaving several places open to pick provincial players.

Confirmation of the squad size is expected shortly - it is likely to be between 36 and 38 players - with as many as eight places being filled according to form in the ITM Cup, which kicks off in Pukekohe tonight.

The size of the tour party and the specific targeting of players involved in the provincial championship highlight coach Steve Hansen's desire to achieve the dual aims in November of securing four victories while growing the leadership and talent base of the national side.

With two years until the next World Cup, the November tests which will see the All Blacks play Japan, France, England and Ireland are being viewed as an opportunity to cast the selection net wider and expose an emerging group of players to test football.

The selectors have already identified many of the players they will scrutinise in the ITM Cup - the likes of Francis Saili, Frank Halai, Ben Tameifuna, Ben Afeaki, Brad Shields, Jeremy Thrush, Tom Taylor, Ryan Crotty, Joe Moody, Luke Whitelock, Matt Todd and Dominic Bird have, in the past two years, been involved with the wider training group or squad proper.

They will be the front-runners to fill the vacant berths but there is potential for a genuine bolter - particularly at hooker where the selectors may look to a youngster such as Rhys Marshall or Liam Coltman.

The All Blacks are conscious they have rotated Keven Mealamu and Andrew Hore for the better part of the past 10 years and with the former 34 and the latter almost 35, there is a danger both could fall over in the next six months, leaving the All Blacks exposed. Dane Coles has a handful of caps but the All Blacks need to develop at least one other young hooker ahead of the next World Cup.

The test match against Japan on November 2 was arranged specifically to provide an opportunity for the younger, less experienced players to take charge of the preparation and leadership of the team. It may also be a chance for the All Blacks to field a handful of new caps.

"There is no secret about our reasons for arranging the Japan test," said New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew. "The coaches identified their desire to grow the leadership of the side as part of a wider strategy focusing on the team's development."

Wellington will begin their campaign tonight with current All Black squad members Coles and TJ Perenara in their starting XV - indicating early that the competition is going to be used when possible to monitor the form of peripheral and aspiring squad members.

Coaches, fans, broadcasters and the players themselves will welcome the increased focus on the provincial game. The ITM Cup has struggled for exposure and relevance in recent seasons given the crowded market.

The All Blacks have also been reluctant in recent years to pick players on the basis of their ITM Cup form alone: partly because they feel there is too big a jump from there to the test arena and partly because they haven't had capacity to carry development players.

The 2010 tour of Europe was focused on winning a Grand Slam and honing the top side ahead of the World Cup. Last year, the main goal was consolidating the All Blacks' position as No1 team in the world.

- NZ Herald

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