Don’t panic. Yes, Kieran Read’s broken his thumb but he’s had surgery to fix it already and, provided there’s no complications, he’ll only be out for six weeks. So, if things go according to plan, he will be fit to play for the Crusaders against the British and Irish Lions on June 10.
He could then play for the All Blacks against Samoa a week later (if the game’s confirmed) and then take on the Lions in the first test at Eden Park a week after that. So two games before the first test – no worries.
The same applies for Jerome Kaino, who has a four-to-six-week recovery time from knee surgery. He will struggle to be ready to play for the Blues in their game against the Lions but should be okay for the match against Samoa. After 77 tests he certainly knows what he needs to do to get ready.
But let’s play devil’s advocate and consider where the selectors might head if either or both Read and Kaino aren’t available. The list is long and reassuring.
Take your pick from Liam Messam, Steven Luatua, Liam Squire, Elliot Dixon, Matt Todd and Ardie Savea from those who have played for the All Blacks before. Pretty much any combination of those guys, with Sam Cane at openside, will produce a more than handy loose forwards trio. I’d tuck Savea in at eight and start Squire or Luatua on the blindside. That’s a compelling combination of skill, power and pace.
Savea has the speed, strength and vision to be a very good No 8. He’s quick enough to get clear from the back of the scrum and his prowess at openside means the All Blacks would have two fetchers who are strong over the ball and able to help with the continuity that is so crucial to the All Blacks game.
At 1.96m tall, Squire is one centimetre taller than Brad Thorn, who played 59 tests at lock for the All Blacks – so there’s no worries about the lineout. And he brings a tough attitude to six – a bit of a throwback to his old Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph.
Luatua is the same height as Squire and has all the attributes to be a superb player with plenty of pace, a big frame that gives him power and a wonderful offload. What’s been missing in a career of unfilled potential is consistency – especially consistency when things get down and dirty, as they probably will against the Lions.
Dixon brings that tough edge to his game and, while Messam’s best days might be behind him, he’s still more than good enough to take on the Lions. Another option is to shift Cane to the blindside if the selectors wanted to bring Matt Todd into the mix.
And then there’s some exciting options who are yet to play for the All Blacks, and who are longshots to make their debuts against the Lions, but show just how deep the depth is in the loose forwards. We’re talking the likes of Vaea Fifita, Akira Ioane, Jordan Taufua and Brad Shields.
Of course, losing Read, the All Blacks skipper, and Kaino, one of their most experienced loose forwards, will be cause for concern and debate with the selectors. But, if they get over their injuries, coach Steve Hansen won’t be too worried that they’ve been sidelined for a month or so.
One of the great talking points ahead of the Lions series is whether the visitors will be match-hardened or knackered; and if the All Blacks will be underdone or fresh and ready to fire. They won’t lack in match fitness thanks to the Super Rugby competition where the New Zealand teams continue to set the pace with four wins from four games over the weekend.
The Crusaders remain unbeaten from nine games, and the Highlanders have won their last five games. The Blues’ win against the Brumbies means New Zealand’s bottom team is now ahead of Australia’s top side on the points table.
Chiefs coach Dave Rennie is far from happy with how his team has played in the past two weeks, but he’s not upset that they are second in the New Zealand conference.
Their 37 points is second only to the Crusaders and equal with the Lion, who are the best from the three other conferences. With five games to play till the competition takes a break for the Lions series, there is still plenty of jockeying for the all important home advantage to be done.
When it comes to the Lions series, I fancy the build ups will favour the All Blacks. It shouldn’t take long for combinations to gel with a warm up game against Samoa and the likelihood of an internal match too. And the fact is many of those likely to start in the first test have played a lot of test rugby together.
With six tough games to play before the first test, and coming off the end of their club competitions, the Lions could well be a limping carcass by the time the first test arrives.