The Blues will feel the pain of Charles Piutau’s absence more than the All Blacks.
The 22-year-old outside back will not be named in the All Blacks’ 35-man wider training squad tomorrow, having sustained a grade two medial strain in his left knee against the Chiefs in New Plymouth which is expected to keep him out for between six to eight weeks.
That’s a major personal blow for Piutau, fairly problematic for the Blues but not overly damaging in respect of the All Blacks’ plans. In fact, it may ease some of the congestion in the back three which was shaping as an area of extreme competition and impossible choices.
How exactly would the All Black selectors have approached the first test against England had Piutau, Ben Smith, Julian Savea, Cory Jane and Israel Dagg all been fit? What’s the right mix among those five?
Track record suggests Dagg, Smith and Savea – the preferred combination last year – would be afforded first crack. Dagg has been slowly coming right with the Crusaders and, while he trails Piutau and Smith in terms of running metres and defenders beaten, these aren’t necessarily the numbers the All Blacks focus on.
Test football asks different questions of fullbacks than Super Rugby and Dagg’s ability to take a high ball under pressure and rake out 50m with his clearance kicks is unparalleled. The All Blacks also fancy they can adapt his running lines to be more effective at counter-attack and use him better as a strike runner in set plays.
Smith is expected to retain the right-wing berth on the basis he’s such a good all-round footballer who has again been in compelling Super Rugby form. Savea’s pace, power and finishing ability provides a contrast and leaves the All Blacks equipped to play in any weather.
One of Piutau or Jane would have picked up a bench place and there would have been loose plans to rotate the back three deeper into the series. In terms of managing disappointment and game time of the back three – things will be a little easier without Piutau.
But the depth will be tested should there be another back-three injury either before or during June.
Frank Halai toured Japan and Europe last year but hasn’t been in such commanding form so far in 2014. Tim Nanai-Williams has the pace and composure to suggest he could play at the next level, while Lolagi Visinia could be a wild card call-up if another outside back is required.
The 21-year-old Blues wing is also comfortable at fullback and, at 1.94m and 100kg, is physically equipped. Visinia played for the New Zealand under-20s last year and has been effective for the Blues in recent weeks.
He’ll most likely be asked to shift to fullback for his franchise after this week’s bye and help his side deliver two victories before the June tests. The Blues now don’t have any margin of error. They will have to beat the Sharks at North Harbour on May 23 and follow it up with another win against the Hurricanes to have any hope of being in the play-off mix.
Hooker Dane Coles, who was forced off against the Rebels on Friday night, suffered a lower back sprain and will be assessed this week but it’s not thought to be serious.
– Gregor Paul – Otago Daily Times – http://www.odt.co.nz/sport/rugby/all-blacks/301856/rugby-injury-eases-headache-ab-selectors