Injuries have been a hot topic of late, especially as we look ahead to the British & Irish Lions tour, but those suffered by Kieran Read, Jerome Kaino and Dane Coles are all timely enough to ensure the All Blacks’ management do not get too stressed. Handled properly, they should each get back in time.
In some ways it’s probably a good thing because we’re not two weeks out; it’s more like six weeks and a broken bone heals in six weeks. It’s not panic stations yet. The players will be working on their conditioning through various methods so they should be in good shape come the action proper.
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Coles’ calf muscle injury will be of particular importance in timing his return, and to be honest team management are probably trying to hold him back. Calf injuries can make scrummaging a concern during the rehabilitation. The injury itself can be caused in the scrum, or going from hard grounds to soft grounds; it’s all connected, and an injury in your lower back can also affect your hamstrings or your calf muscles.
But in scrums, if you have any tears and you push too hard, you can put strain on the injury that re-tears the muscle or tears it right away. It is an injury that can last longer than is necessary if you don’t get it right. It’s just a case of taking a little bit longer and making sure it is 100 percent all clear.
I remember Robin Brooke went on the All Blacks’ end-of-year tour in 1993 and never played a game. He left New Zealand with a calf tear, and it was always just a couple of weeks away but never came right.
Dane Coles Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
Injuries that happen in three weeks’ time will be of more concern, and there are bound to be some. Of the squad the selectors have pencilled in, I am sure there are going to be injuries — and it is the same with the Lions.
Injuries inevitably cause people to cast around and see what might be on offer should back-up players be required; now we’ve reached the halfway stage of the Super Rugby season, it is worth looking at some of the New Zealand players who have made an impact this year.
Bryn Gatland got an unexpected opportunity for the Blues against the Brumbies. I’ve always been a fan of his, as he’s a smart rugby player who reads a game really, really well. I’m not surprised he’s ended up in the Blues, just as I wasn’t surprised he started for North Harbour in the Mitre 10 Cup last year.
He’s someone we still haven’t seen the best of; given the opportunity, he has an exciting season ahead of him — especially having been named for the New Zealand Barbarians to play the Lions in the tour opener. He will get better with more game time; if the Blues invest more time in him, he may be just what they have been looking for in the longer term.
To win the championship, you have to have a top five-eighth, and I think Gatland has the potential to bring a lot more to his game. He’s someone I see in the mould of Richie Mo’unga two years ago compared with where he is now. There were doubts about Mo’unga back then, but Canterbury and the Crusaders have thrown him out there and said, ‘We’re just going to give you game time’. He got better with the game time.
I remember back when Sir Graham Henry was coaching, he said to Shane Howarth, “I’m going to give you six games on the trot, rest assured you won’t be dropped, just play’, and Howarth just got better and better.
Bryn Gatland Hannah Peters/Getty Images
And if Tana Umaga said to Gatland, “You’re the man and rightly or wrongly you need to learn”, there’s nothing to lose. They can’t be conservative in the remainder of the season; the Blues have got to play. If the Blues throw him out there and he makes a few mistakes but they look to have a first five-eighths, then it will have been a good investment for the future.
It has been interesting also watching flanker Blake Gibson come back to better form. His play had been indifferent, but as the Blues pack has looked better so too has Gibson. He needs to cut the error rates down, as does the whole side, but he is a strong, nuggetty player and very physical, and he’s another who will benefit from more game time.
Matt Duffie on the wing has gone really well. He’s an out-and-out finisher. You give him ball and he can do something with it. If you want to make sure the try is scored and the ball is dotted down, he is the one to do it.
You wonder what Steve Hansen’s 60-man squad will look like, Duffie is surely in contention and if you throw out names that are being looked at. Crusaders wing George Bridge is another. He was outstanding at the weekend, as was his fullback team-mate, David Havili.
If you go right through New Zealand and look at the players who are performing, it is a healthy situation.
Two more players who have also caught the eye by taking their chances are the Blues locks Gerard Cowley-Tuioti and Scott Scrafton. I’ve heard it said that you can’t be an international lock if you’re not 2m tall, but I’m not so sure; it’s the old story about the size of the fight in the dog, and they both have it. They’ve gone out there and mixed it by really digging deep, and that’s what the Blues need.
Ngani Laumape Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
Shaun Stevenson has been a revelation for the Chiefs, while Sam McNicol has stood up well in the centre and the loose forwards Mitchell Brown, Lachlan Boshier and Mitch Karpik have all impressed. The Chiefs might also have a longer-term interest in Whetu Douglas, who played for Waikato last year but then featured for the Crusaders as injury cover for Read. He left the Crusaders to get ready to fly out on a two-year contract with Treviso in Italy, although he does have an out clause after his first season. He doesn’t leave until May 28 and has said he could help the Crusaders out against the Hurricanes next week. He couldn’t go to South Africa because his passport was still with the Italian Embassy.
In the midfield, Ngani Laumape has been really good for the Hurricanes. In any other country, he would be considered for international play but with so many queuing up for the All Blacks he is a way back in the line. He has done really well this season. Vince Aso is another who has performed both on the wing and at centre. And we’ve already talked about Jordie Barrett in previous columns.
Jeff Toomaga-Allan is getting better from week to week. He wouldn’t look out of place if he could put pressure on the tight-heads. A fit Nepo Laulala would also be on the radar, and possibly both of them could be in front of Ofa Tu’ungafasi at the moment.
I like the look of Rob Thompson in midfield for the Highlanders. He had a good game at the weekend and is getting back to his best after injury. He has a lot of the Ryan Crotty look about him, which is hardly surprising given they played for Canterbury together.
Dillon Hunt has also stepped up to take his chance since coming in as flanker cover for James Lentjes and Shane Christie.
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Steve Hansen has plenty of options: Dowd
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