Loose forwards keep dropping and as they do the importance of Steven Luatua to the All Blacks keeps climbing.

In the space of two weeks the All Blacks have seen Jerome Kaino, Kieran Read and Liam Squire all put themselves in doubt to be fit for the first test of the series against the British & Irish Lions.

Kaino was forced to have knee surgery on a torn meniscus which has left him with a four-to-six week recovery window. Maybe he'll be fit in time, but he'll definitely lack game conditioning.

Read has a broken thumb which is expected to take six weeks to heal and again, he's somewhere between a possible and probable starter in the first test on June 24.


In an almost freakish coincidence, Liam Squire suffered the same injury as Read against the same team on the same ground one week later.

And like Read, Squire is looking at a six-week recovery which puts him in much the same boat: he's likely to be fit by the time of the first test but with no recent game time behind him.

"Liam Squire has broken a thumb so he will be on the plane home," Highlanders coach Tony Brown said after his side's miraculous come-from-behind 45-41 victory in Bloemfontein. "Obviously it's looking like six weeks for a broken thumb.

"With Kieran Read out, he was probably next cab off the rank. But hopefully both Kieran and Jerome can get back in time for the Lions."

The odds sit in favour of Kaino and Read both recovering well and both doing enough to convince All Blacks coach Steve Hansen they will be able to deliver the necessary performance on June 24.

But there is no guarantee of that and with Squire also racing the clock, the All Blacks have to be prepared for the worst which means that Luatua will be firmly in their plans for the series.

If he was, at best, a long shot to be involved against the British & Irish Lions when he announced in March that he was joining Bristol later this year, he's now odds on to be involved.

It wouldn't even be that much of a stretch now to see him starting at blindside against the Lions in the first test. His stocks have risen to that point partly because of the glut of injuries but partly, and more significantly, because he's been playing better than he ever has.

Probably the only thing separating Luatua and Squire is the former's decision to sign with Bristol later in the year.

If it had come down to a choice between one of them, Squire would most likely have been picked given he's committed his longer-term future.

But that scenario hasn't materialised and Luatua will be picked to do a job the selectors believe he can do.

And while Lions coach Warren Gatland was quick to say during the week - before Squire's injury - that the All Blacks would be a little nervous about the number of players in their casualty ward, it may have been a case of wishful thinking.

The All Blacks didn't want to incur the injuries they have and nor will they be revelling in their predicament, but they do at least have the enormous comfort of being able to call upon a player of Luatua's class.

It's not exactly a crises to have to bring into the side a player with 15 test caps and who, prior to some injury issues, was being hotly tipped as the long term successor to Kaino.
Luatua, should he be needed, will give the All Blacks a genuine jumping option in the lineout.

He'll also bring an improved physical presence and work rate and if everyone is honest, Luatua has been in better form so far in Super Rugby than Kaino.

International teams around the world would love to scrape the barrel and pull out an athlete like Luatua.

The All Blacks won't be happy about Squire's injury but nor will they will be unduly worried.