Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Sonny Bill Williams set to go ahead of Charlie Ngatai in midfield

Chiefs second-five Charlie Ngatai is likely to miss Rugby Championship selection. Photo / Photosport
Chiefs second-five Charlie Ngatai is likely to miss Rugby Championship selection. Photo / Photosport

The hugely-promising Charlie Ngatai is most probably going to have to wait until the end of year tour to resume his test career. All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has all but ruled out the midfielder from Rugby Championship selection.

Ngatai, 25, who won his solitary cap last year against Samoa, hasn't played since incurring a head knock late in the game against the Highlanders on May 7. More than nine weeks since being diagnosed with concussion, Ngatai continues to suffer mild symptoms and hasn't been able to train with the Chiefs. Even if he were to become symptom-free in the immediate future, his lack of conditioning and game time will need to be addressed and he's run out of time to prove his readiness to play test football next month.

It's a tough blow for a player who could yet establish himself as the long-term replacement to Conrad Smith in the All Blacks' midfield.

Ngatai's timing, distribution, linebreaking and ability to switch effortlessly between second-five and centre are qualities that the All Blacks are keen to utilise.

When he turned up in camp for the test series against Wales last month and was still feeling unwell, he was sent home to aid his recovery in the hope he would be able to get back into Super Rugby action in July. That's not going to happen now and Ngatai will have to hope he recovers in time to play provincial football with Taranaki and earn a recall for the All Blacks' tour to the US and Europe in November.

The non-availability of Ngatai has simplified things slightly for the All Blacks coaches in determining the make up of their 32-man squad. Sonny Bill Williams, who wasn't available in June due to his sevens commitments, will be named in the Rugby Championship squad as long he's not injured, serving as a replacement for Ngatai. Most likely one of George Moala, Seta Tamanivalu or Damian McKenzie will be left out.

Moala, after playing particularly well in his one start in June, would be the favourite to hold his place. The question will then be whether the selectors feel McKenzie would be better served playing in the Mitre 10 Cup or mostly training and learning with the All Blacks.

"We have got Sonny coming back but won't be able to use him in the first test," Hansen told Radio Sport's Marty Devlin. "We are going to name him, probably, as long as he's injury-free, in the Rugby Championship squad. He won't be available for the first test and then we will see how he's travelling and whether we name him in the second one. But he'll play some time in the competition for sure.

"But we have got some other guys who are playing well. Crotts [Ryan Crotty] is playing well. George played particularly well in the one game he got and we know Mala [Malakai Fekitoa] is a good footballer.

"Unfortunately Charlie Ngatai, with his concussion, hasn't played for nine weeks or done any training for nine weeks so he is probably an end of year candidate."

- NZ Herald

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