By Chris Rattue
Christian Cullen remains an All Black centre contender despite the Hurricanes decision to keep him at fullback so far in the Super 12 this year.
Cullen is under pressure for his test fullback position from Jeff Wilson, who despite playing on the wing for the All Blacks is used at the back by the Highlanders.
Hurricanes back coach Graeme Taylor revealed early this season that the All Black selectors had asked if Cullen could be given some time in the centres during the Super 12.
That fuelled speculation that Wilson, whose skills often seem best revealed from fullback, was being groomed to take over the number 15 jersey.
But despite injuries to Hurricanes first-choice centre Alama Ieremia - he will be missing again against the Blues tomorrow night - Cullen has remained at fullback where he will start at Eden Park.
All Black coach John Hart said yesterday: "It is something we have considered for the past two seasons and we will continue to see it as an option.
"And we would still consider it even if he does not play in the Super 12 there.
"Obviously the Hurricanes have got their team to run and we would never try to push them into doing something they didn't feel was right for them.
"I must say that we have had a terrific rapport and co-operation from the Super 12 coaches in 1999 and we realise they have all got their own obligations to consider."
Cullen had a slow start to the year but is starting to hit his straps as the Hurricanes, a team made up of players from far and wide, begin to bid for a semifinal place.
They showed just how dangerous they can be in one of the biggest upsets in Super 12 history against the Sharks in South Africa last week, with Ieremia, Cullen and Tana Umaga running free.
Hurricanes coach Frank Oliver would not be drawn on whether Cullen would spend any time in the centres this season.
"I don't want to even go down that track," said Oliver, when asked how he viewed balancing his own team's requirements and any wishes from the All Black management.
"It is something we've tossed around but we've always had injury problems to consider.
"He may play there. He may not. We've played him on the wing before. Who knows? I make no promises."
The Hurricanes drafted in Glen Osborne as fullback cover in case Cullen made the shift, but Osborne cannot even make the first 17 with Alex Telea being preferred on the wing and Damian Karauna used as outside back cover from the bench.
As the Hurricanes signalled all week, centre Ieremia's comeback from a foot operation has been stalled by a hamstring injury. Otago recruit Reuben Parkinson returns to the threequarters.
Meanwhile Jason O'Halloran has retained the Hurricanes captaincy, ahead of Norm Hewitt.
Hewitt was given the leadership role at the start of the year but made a late entrance because of injury, and after some late night troubles in Queenstown.
As with the Cullen selection issue, Oliver said: "It's no big deal to me.
"Norm Hewitt was named the squad captain, but we'll just have to wait and see."
Meanwhile, Auckland prop Paul Thomson will miss tomorrow night's match at Eden Park because of a foot injury, with North Harbour loosehead Tony Coughlan starting. Mark Carter has won a starting place as openside flanker with Justin Collins on the blindside. Charles Riechelmann goes onto the bench.