Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: Hooker only puzzle picking All Blacks test side

Dane Coles. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Dane Coles. Photo / Mark Mitchell

A peek into the Wallabies nerve centre would reveal the All Blacks test side for next Saturday pinned on their notice board.

New coach Ewen McKenzie might be scratching his noggin about who will wear the black No 2 jersey and perhaps a few on the reserves list, but that's all.

When the All Blacks selectors revealed 12 backs and 16 forwards for the next phase of their test programme, the starting XV almost jumped out of the list.

Only some injury mishap tomorrow in the trial hit outs in Wellington will alter the starting selection to defend the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship titles.

The backline will be Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea, Dan Carter and Aaron Smith with a loose trio of Kieran Read, captain Richie McCaw and Liam Messam.

The tight five combination offered some debate but a bit of history and the knee injury for loosehead prop Wyatt Crockett suggests Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Owen Franks and Tony Woodcock will suit up.

But who will be picked at hooker? Dane Coles got the nod against France twice before a calf strain took him out of the final international in June.

The coaches wanted to start him throughout the series to continue the investment they made on the end of year tour to Europe.

That muscle strain will be assessed again this week among other ideas on who is best equipped to slot into the middle of the front row.

Keven Mealamu has also had several calf niggles this season and managed only four starts for the Blues and five other roles from the bench.

With 104 test appearances, Mealamu is the most experienced of the hookers but not the oldest.

That title goes to Andrew Hore, who turns 35 next month and is probably in the best nick of all three hookers. There's little let-up in his play.

He has played 76 tests and jetted away quickly from last week's All Blacks training camp so he could train then play for Maniototo in the Central Otago club competition.

Hore struggled with rib cartilage damage early in the Highlanders season but when he recovered, he again showed that combative tough streak which has been so valuable for the All Blacks squad.

If all three hookers are fit, the selectors will have to think strongly about the balance between the future and pragmatic advantages of experience.

Their focus is already starting to narrow towards a certain tournament in Europe in late 2015 with trips late this year and next - opportunities to work through more plans before the eighth World Cup.

- NZ Herald

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Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

The latest commentary and analysis from senior rugby writer Wynne Gray. Wynne has been covering the All Blacks for more than 27 years and has attended more than 230 All Blacks tests live for the Herald.

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