Rugby: Selection headaches loom for Auckland NPC coach

By Campbell Burnes

George Moala. Photo / Getty
George Moala. Photo / Getty

New Auckland coach Nick White has some looming selection headaches with his Mitre 10 Cup squad, especially if some of his fringe All Blacks are released back to the union for extended periods.

But those are the kind of headaches every coach wants.

Into the fringe All Blacks category come George Moala, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Patrick Tuipulotu and surely now Steven Luatua, if we consider Jerome Kaino, Charlie Faumuina and Malakai Fekitoa as front-liners.

"We won't bank on having them, but if we do have them, we'll definitely play them, because we don't want to penalise them for being All Blacks. Hopefully, for their sakes, we don't see a lot of them. Steven has played well the last 4-5 games, so he's probably put himself back on the radar. If there are injuries (to the All Blacks), he's there or thereabouts for a recall, and we need to promote guys for the end of year tour if we can," says White.

Auckland announced their 37-man squad on Monday, a group brimful of talent, with 22 Super Rugby players, seven who have played for the All Blacks, one Tongan international and a potential five Auckland debutants, who have won their spurs out of one of the tightest premier club competitions in years.

First five Tyrone Elkington-MacDonald played Ranfurly Shield rugby for Hawke's Bay in 2015 and has racked up 204 points for the University club this season. Tongan five-eighths Latiume Fosita, out of the Papatoetoe club, has previously played for Northland.
"Obviously we had a lot of guys returning from last year. That was a bonus and made things a little easier," says White.

"A lot of guys put their hands up during the club season. We had to think long and hard about some positions, which was great. The club competition was very even this year. At the end of the club season we are getting better players because they are having to play well every week."

Into the club standouts category comes Manukau Rovers captain and No 8 Josh Kaifa, who led his team from the front, and the College Rifles duo of wing Joe Ravouvou, who has run in 12 tries to help his club to the top of the standings heading into this weekend's semifinals, and second five Pasqualle Dunn.

There may be some eyebrows raised from White's old Waitemata club, which has no players in the team, or from Suburbs, which has just Lolagi Visinia in the mix. There will also be some who quibble over the fact that there is a clutch of players in the mix from University and Manukau, two clubs that missed the top eight.

In truth, there were some who were unlucky, but there are others who are central to their teams' fortunes, such as No 10 Carl Perry at Suburbs and Rifles loose forwards Hayden Edwards and Jeremy Innes, who are not quite at Mitre 10 Cup standard.

The Rifles props Dexter Faamoana and Emerson Tamura-Paki might have won the nod were it not for the fact that Auckland already has several PU-contracted props.
University threequarter Liam Steel has been injured most of the season, but he is now running and will likely be available for selection in a month, probably through the Development XV at first.

White has named just two halfbacks in Jono Hickey and Crusader Leon Fukofuka, but feels they can easily whistle up a young player from either the Colts or Development XV, and Lisati Milo-Harris, also due back from a long-term injury, will soon be an option.

The Ioane brothers may well be available for the opening Mitre 10 Cup clash with Canterbury - a repeat of the 2015 Premiership decider - on August 20, depending on how they pull up after their Olympic campaign. Rieko Ioane, of course, is an option in the No 13 jersey or on the wing.

Vince Aso has been in fine form for the Hurricanes at second five, while Michael Fatialofa has been tremendous for that franchise in the second-row.

"With the new rules coming into play, the Super Rugby boys haven't played them yet. That's going to be a big challenge, and they need to get a good grip on those as soon as possible," says White.

That could mean that a jack of all trades like Taleni Seu, who has excelled with the Chiefs, could even provide cover at No 7.

"There's not the same opportunities to jackle over the ball now, so Taleni may have a few numbers on his back. He's got the skillset to play anywhere, that fella."

Whichever combination White chooses to play in the pack, he will likely always have at last four lineout options, and that includes the spring-heeled Blake Gibson, whose 2015 campaign never got going due to injury, allowing Mitch Karpik to shine. Gibson should be champing at the bit after a stop-start Blues season.

Liaki Moli, who has been plain luckless with injury in recent seasons, sits on the verge of 50 games for the union. He is coming off a full campaign with the Sunwolves, where he operated primarily at blindside flanker.

"Liaki enjoys playing for Auckland. There was some doubt about whether he would come back, but he's made the decision and he's a good asset for us," says White.

Simon Hickey will again assume the captaincy duties before he heads back to France with Bordeaux-Begles in the Top 14. He has fitted in three games for his Grammar TEC club since his return.

"I didn't see the point in changing the captaincy. It's going to be his last year here. He wants to finish on a high. He did a bloody good job last year and he's got a lot of respect from the boys," adds White. Calvary Fonoti, who can also play one out, will be a capable deputy.

There was no rest for White after he dispensed his Blues scrum coach duties last Friday night. But he doesn't mind.

"Tana's (Umaga) been really good. Once training's done at the Blues, I've been allowed to scoot off and get into my Auckland work."

White's assistant Geoff Moon will be even busier through August, as he winds up the season with the all-conquering Mt Albert Grammar First XV, who look set to be in the Auckland 1A final. Win that, on August 20, the same day as Auckland faces Canterbury, and Moon could be involved with the First XV until the first week of September at the national Top 4 tournament.

White says Moon will stay with his school team until their season is complete.

"They've had a fantastic year. Hopefully they can go all the way and then he can join us. It's only the game day he misses anyway."

Auckland's pre-season programme comprises North Harbour on August 5 and Bay of Plenty on August 12, though not all the squad will be involved as some - the non-Blues - will be on leave after Super Rugby.

White does not have to be reminded it is now nine years since Auckland last won the provincial title. He came off the bench against Wellington in that 2007 decider.

But, with minimal injuries and, dependent on All Blacks selections, Auckland looks to have a squad that can again mount a serious tilt at the Premiership crown.

"We're going to have to work hard and play smart. There's some damned good teams there. Everyone's out to win it," says White.

- NZ Herald

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