By WYNNE GRAY
Exciting youngster Orene Ai'i appears to have a slight advantage in the race to start the Super 12 as first five-eighths for the Auckland Blues.
With last season regular Carlos Spencer in recovery mode for some time after knee surgery, coach Gordon Hunter had to assess the promise of Ai'i or the experience of Walter Little.
Little impressed in a trial match last week, but Ai'i was steady enough in the Blues' meeting with Queensland in Sydney at the weekend to earn another start on Wednesday against New South Wales.
Hunter has not finalised his combination for their last trial game, though he revealed he would use Ai'i again. That surely signals the coach's preference for Ai'i to start the Super 12 unless he has a midweek shocker.
Halfback Steve Devine's chances of being ready for the February 25 beginning against the ACT Brumbies may depend on a visit to a specialist today. Devine has flown home from Australia, his ankle too sore for him to be considered for the meeting with NSW.
Replacement midfielder To'o Vaega damaged his knee in the 17-33 loss to the Reds and is unavailable this week. Otherwise, the Blues' injury list was quite light.
But there were a number of casualties as all the New Zealand and Australian sides played weekend matches.
Chiefs lock Royce Willis and Hurricanes loose forward Filo Tiatia both strained medial knee ligaments and will be out for at least a month, the same convalescence NSW midfielder Nathan Grey will have to endure after breaking his thumb during his team's 16-3 victory against the Canterbury Crusaders.
Reds test flanker Matt Cockbain is in for a bigger rest. He broke his thumb in two places and will be out for two months, while fellow Reds forward Toutai Kefu should start the Super 12 after dislocating a toe.
During the weekend round of trials, the Otago Highlanders were the only New Zealand side to win. They beat the Chiefs 32-20 in Oamaru, with both teams talking about the importance of ball retention under the altered tackle-ball laws.
Defeat for the Chiefs felt worse with Willis' injury, while the Highlanders were gratified they could reintroduce centre Jeremy Stanley to top-level rugby after his serious knee injury last year.
In Masterton, the knee injury to Tiatia compounded an ordinary game from the Hurricanes, who were beaten 31-8 by a composed Brumbies squad.
The Crusaders' match in Sydney was spoiled by heavy rain, while the Blues looked off the pace in the curtainraiser.
"I have deliberately elected to leave our preparation until late, in comparison to other squads who have been going since November and December," said coach Hunter. "We are racing the clock and it will be a busy week. We have a lot to do. We coughed up a lot of ball, our defence was not good enough, so our focus will be vastly different for this next game against New South Wales."