Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Powerhouse Tuipulotu set for call-up

Blues lock Patrick Tuipulotu impressed the All Black selectors with his form in Super Rugby. Photo / Getty Images
Blues lock Patrick Tuipulotu impressed the All Black selectors with his form in Super Rugby. Photo / Getty Images

The ball-carrying power of Patrick Tuipulotu has been noted by the All Black selectors who will almost certainly name the Blues lock in their wider training squad on Monday.

Promotion for the 21-year-old Super Rugby rookie will be one of the bigger surprises in a squad that is likely to see a recall for Jerome Kaino, the introduction of a young hooker and confirmation that Malakai Fekitoa is being viewed as the heir apparent to Conrad Smith.

A 35-man squad will assemble in Christchurch next Sunday to begin preparing for the three-test series against England in June.

A second camp in Wellington the week after will provide the All Black coaches with another opportunity to complete what they see as vital preparation and to provide further intelligence on personnel ahead of culling the squad to 31.

"We wouldn't be able to do June without these camps," says All Black coach Steve Hansen.

"Preparation is key for us and taking players out of five different systems and then asking them to fit into ours doesn't happen overnight. It takes a lot of work, maybe not so much physically but mentally."

Tuipulotu's likely elevation is part of a wider desire to find another tight, heavy-hitting lock alongside Luke Romano. In Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick and Dominic Bird, the All Blacks have ample aerial power and athletic prowess.

Romano has struggled with injury in the past 12 months and the 1.98m, 120kg Tuipulotu has shown himself willing throughout Super Rugby to take the ball into the fray and clean out hard at the collisions.

A more pressing concern for the selectors, though, is building their options at hooker, which are starting to look worryingly thin.

Dane Coles, who quietly bulked up in the off-season, has come to grips with his greater weight and is delivering more in the tight without having sacrificed his mobility.

Keven Mealamu's calf has been problematic and no one can be certain it will behave during June which is why the All Blacks might have to recall Corey Flynn to provide an experienced back-up.

England would probably outrank South Africa in raw forward power and the ferocious and sometimes troubled Dylan Hartley is pushing Bismarck du Plessis as the best hooker in the world.

The All Blacks can't go into the series without a seasoned pro on the bench to support Coles.

But the selectors are also mindful of the need to be developing an alternative, younger option such as Liam Coltman or Nathan Harris.

There remains a lack of conviction about the emerging hookers - none having delivered evidence they are ready.

But with Flynn mulling an overseas offer - he'll be available for June but perhaps not beyond that - and Mealamu having to be managed game-by-game, the time has arrived for the selectors to take the risk and throw a new boy out there.

It's probable three hookers will be retained in the final 31, but only two halfbacks and two first-fives will survive the cull.

TJ Perenara has fixed some of his technical deficiencies - although verbally chipping referee Steve Walsh last week won't have impressed Hansen - and has made it a close run thing between him and Tawera Kerr-Barlow for the second spot behind Aaron Smith.

Much like Flynn, Andy Ellis provides an insurance policy at halfback should injury strike Smith. But also just like Flynn, Ellis is thought to have secured a release to play in Japan instead of the ITM Cup.

Despite the uncertainty at hooker, Hansen is harbouring a quiet confidence about his likely squad.

Unlike previous seasons, there has been a pleasing lack of underperformers and the bulk of his key men are coming into camp in good form.

"No one is carrying long-term niggly injuries and that is important.

There is also a lot of confidence in all of the Super Rugby squads and that feeds into individuals.

"It makes a big difference [at the camps] in what you can do with them and what you can spend your time on," says Hansen.

- NZ Herald

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