Patrick McKendry 's Opinion

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Patrick McKendry: Conundrums aplenty for test selectors

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The Rugby Championship trophy is about to be locked in the New Zealand Rugby Union cabinet once again following the All Blacks' stunning victory over the old foe in Johannesburg, but several other issues are less cut-and-dried for the selectors.

Some pointed questions are swirling. We will give Steve Hansen and co time to enjoy the 38-27 five-tries-to-four victory over the Boks at Ellis Park but they must be answered in due course - and some must be sorted by the time the All Blacks attempt to get themselves up for the dead Bledisloe Cup rubber against a suddenly resurgent Wallabies in Dunedin a week on Saturday.

Chief among those conundrums are...

Who plays centre?

Conrad Smith is about to take a well-earned sabbatical, coming as it does following his superb work with the All Blacks and his Super rugby franchise (a key point his midfield partner Ma'a Nonu might want to consider).

Smith, the captain of the frustratingly inconsistent Hurricanes, won't be available for the test against Australia (or the end of year tour) which will probably provide an opening for local boy Ben Smith, an outstanding performer for both the All Blacks and Highlanders this year. It will be Smith's first start at No13 in the black jersey and while several experienced campaigners believe the switch from fullback or wing to the midfield might be harder than Smith realises, a test at home against Ewen McKenzie's battlers might be the ideal introduction.

Where will SBW fit?

Nonu is the incumbent at second-five, which also happens to be Sonny Bill Williams' preferred position. With him tipped to be back for the Chiefs next season, how will Hansen squeeze Nonu, SBW and Conrad Smith into that midfield? It is likely the All Blacks coach will mix-and-match all three, including playing Nonu at centre. Nonu, likely to be heading to French club Clermont, but with a Parisian club also understood to be entering the bidding war, is unlikely to be available for the three June tests against England. It will be Williams' big chance to make his mark before Nonu re-enters the race for the Rugby Championship.

Game over for Dan Carter?

The injured Carter remains the incumbent No10 for Hansen, no question, but he'll also be off the Super rugby radar next year. His sabbatical will rule him out of the Crusaders' campaign and June tests, meaning Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett and Tom Taylor all have ample time to stake further claims. Cruden is next best in the eyes of the selectors but suffered another knee injury at the weekend. His knees and groin are causing him an increasing amount of grief, although he appears indestructible at the Chiefs for whom he played every game over the past two years. Barrett, a super-sub during the Rugby Championship, is fast gaining on him and Taylor looks the part, too.

It is hard to escape the feeling that the clock is ticking for Carter.

Kaino conundrum

The former All Blacks loose forward enforcer will return for the Blues this year - has he still got what it takes following two seasons in Japan? The other question is: if he does impress under John Kirwan, where will he feature in Hansen's plans? Liam Messam was very good at Ellis Park, scoring a double and making a real impact all over the field. Blues No6 Steven Luatua is growing as the lock-loose forward cover on the bench, with Sam Cane as Richie McCaw's deputy. With Kieran Read irreplaceable at No8, is Kaino, supreme in the latter part of his All Blacks career, good enough to displace Messam or Luatua? Or will he be forced to assume a squad member-type role?

Plus...

Will Hansen take exciting Hurricanes No7 Ardie Savea on the end of year tour? Japan would be a good place to blood him. If the Dunedin test is Andrew Hore's final game for the All Blacks, will Hansen start him again as he did in the past two against the Pumas and Boks, or confine him to a bench role behind Dane Coles? After Brodie Retallick's tour de force in Luke Romano's absence, will Romano be used as a substitute in the future or will Hansen elect to keep rotating his young locks?

- NZ Herald

Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby writer Patrick McKendry began his journalism career 20 years ago and has worked in newspapers in New Zealand and the United Kingdom. He worked in a communications role on his return here before joining APN before the 2011 World Cup.

Read more by Patrick McKendry

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