As is evident in the fraught Christmas quarantine scenario facing the All Blacks, basing the Rugby Championship in Australia comes with many conflicting complications. Yet there could be a silver lining for two leading players on the comeback trail set for earlier-than-expected recalls.
While all players selected to travel to Australia after the second Bledisloe Cup test at Eden Park on October 18 will be given the option of opting out of the tour, Ngani Laumape and Scott Barrett may be two keener members of the extended squad, having spent the past few months on the sideline.
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The All Blacks will add 11 more players to their 35-man Bledisloe Cup squad for the Rugby Championship. Those additions are expected to be revealed after the fourth round of the Mitre 10 Cup early next month – a timeframe that would allow players enough time to plan for up to 10 weeks away from their families and partners.
Much focus with regards to the next batch of All Blacks has largely centred on the rookie prospects that may be included – yet of those to be added, Laumape and Barrett could provide the most telling boosts.
Laumape played the last of his 15 tests off the bench against the Wallabies in August, 2019. He then missed out on the World Cup squad to Sonny Bill Williams, Ryan Crotty, Jack Goodhue and Anton Lienert-Brown.
With two of those established midfielders in New Zealand this season, Laumape's seized his time to impress, and now appears set to feature in his first test for one year.
Laumape's intent to prove a point this year was clear in his compelling form for the Hurricanes, and with his direct post-match comments after the win over the Blues in Wellington, where he ran over the top of Beauden Barrett to score and then sounded off about people apparently disrespecting his name.
Due to his powerful attributes and direct approach at times Laumape is often unfairly typecast as one-dimensional. This perception masks the truth that he has, in fact, gradually added many varied passing and kicking skills to his repertoire since returning to union from the Warriors.
In a cruel blow, Laumape fractured his forearm in the Hurricanes' upset win over the Crusaders in Christchurch in late July, and has been sidelined since. The timing of the injury robbed him of the chance to carry his superb form into the North-South match and the All Blacks, where he was certain to earn a recall.
Laumape's recovery is understood to be progressing well and he is, therefore, expected to be selected in the All Blacks Rugby Championship squad.
While unlikely to be fit for the All Blacks' opening match of that tournament against the Wallabies in Brisbane on November 7, Laumape could return not long after. The 27-year-old's destructive power, pace and subtle skill would add another dimension to the All Blacks' attacking abilities in combination with Goodhue, Lienert-Brown and Rieko Ioane.
To cover the likelihood of further injuries during the tournament, and the challenge of replacing players with quarantine required, the All Blacks are likely to carry five specialist midfielders which opens the door for Hurricanes centre Peter Umaga-Jensen's maiden call up alongside Laumape.
Crusaders fullback David Havili, who recently returned from thumb surgery with Tasman, is another strong contender with his versatility offering major upside.
Like Laumape, Barrett's progress following surgery on his big toe in late June is encouraging. He, too, is expected to make his comeback after the Rugby Championship's first round.
Barrett's return would provide a significant boost for Ian Foster's depleted locking stocks which are without Brodie Retallick. Rookie prospects Quinten Strange and Tupou Vaa'i were included with experienced duo Sam Whitelock and Patrick Tuipulotu in the original 35-strong Bledisloe Cup squad.
After sitting out the past three months Crusaders captain Barrett has ground to make up on Blues skipper Tuipulotu but, when fit, he would slot straight into the first-choice 23.
Barrett's presence would also allow the All Blacks to adopt a patient approach to grooming Strange and the 20-year-old Vaa'i, who has impressed with Taranaki since his rapid elevation to the national side.