By DAVID LEGGAT
Blues coach Gordon Hunter should know by Monday whether he will have Caleb Ralph to round out his Super 12 rugby squad next year.
Fleet-footed former All Black utility outside back Ralph is in rugby limbo, with the Crusaders and the Blues both wanting his services.
Ralph has a contract with the Auckland Rugby Union until November 2001, and the first Blues chief executive Geoff Hipkins knew of Canterbury's interest was not from the player but a late-night fax from Christchurch, 20 minutes before the transfer deadline expired.
That was a concern, he admitted.
Late yesterday Ralph and the union had a meeting, which union officials described as "positive" - which could either mean Ralph is being persuaded that his contract is worth retaining, or that Auckland are due a decent cheque in the mail soon - and they will return to the discussion table this morning.
If Ralph does become a Blue, the injured Carlos Spencer will drop out, for the meantime.
Spencer is recovering from the injury which curtailed his World Cup, and that opens a door for the dazzling Orene Ai'i at first five-eighths.
Hunter insisted that Spencer will not be rushed back, pointing out that his fitness is an All Black, as well as a Blues issue.
When Spencer is fully fit, assuming Ralph stays with the Blues, another player will be dropped, but Hunter will not jump that fence until the situation demands it.
Hunter, preparing for his first year with the Blues, pulled a couple of rabbits out of a canny hat yesterday.
Former New Zealand Colts prop David Morgan, who has been playing for Bourgoin in France in recent years, has been selected to bolster the tighthead side of the scrum.
And North Harbour's lively hooker Slade McFarland's lack of requisite form and fitness have cost him a place in favour of Southland draft Davin Heaps.
Hunter said he undertook extensive inquiries into Morgan, whom he first saw as a 17-year-old at Otago University, before deciding he was up to the job.
"The standard of the teams they're playing in France is very high. We gave it a lot of thought and if he doesn't meet the criteria, that's a failure in my selection process," Hunter admitted.
He believed he had a pack with sufficient quality to provide service for a backline he labelled "perhaps the most exciting three-quarter line in world rugby."
The Chiefs have named 25 players, holding a place for injured flanker Nick Holten, with a replacement to be sought until he is back in late March after shoulder reconstruction work.
There are plenty of familiar faces in the Chiefs line-up, and coach Ross Cooper is rapt to have Glenn Taylor in charge.
"He is a tremendous leader, hardworking player and he understands the players and the region," he said.
Of the nine Chiefs newcomers, four are drafts - Taylor, hooker Paul Mitchell, Canterbury winger James Kerr and prop Simon Kerr, from Southland.
By DAVID LEGGAT