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All Blacks coach drops selection hints for clash against Italy

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

The All Blacks are set to welcome back stalwarts Sam Cane and Dane Coles, as well as loose forward Shannon Frizell, for this week’s clash against Italy in Rome.

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All three players missed last week’s 54-16 victory over Wales in Cardiff, with Cane and Coles rested following their long-awaited returns to the test arena in New Zealand’s 104-14 drubbing of the USA Eagles in Washington DC a fortnight ago.

Both players made their first appearances for the All Blacks after lengthy injury lay-offs, which, in the case of Cane, had kept him out of action since March.

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The 29-year-old flanker, who has been relieved of his captaincy duties for this tour, entered that test from the bench with just one match under his belt since recovering from his injury after he turned out for King Country in a one-off appearance in the Heartland Championship last month.

Coles, meanwhile, hadn’t been sighted in an All Blacks jersey since July when he took to the field against Fiji in New Zealand’s 60-13 win in Hamilton.

The 34-year-old hooker marked his return to test rugby with his side’s penultimate try against the Americans, but All Blacks assistant coach John Plumtree said both players need further international exposure in order to put themselves in contention to play in major tests against Ireland and France in the coming weeks.

“Both of those guys you talked about there are playing on the weekend,” Plumtree told reporters of Cane and Coles’ selection chances against the Azzurri on Wednesday [NZT].

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“It’s really important that both those players get up to speed with their games so that they can be in contention for the following two weeks, so there won’t be any surprise there. I’m not going to hold that back from you.

“The whole thing [tour] has been designed around those two being involved this week and there’ll be some younger players amongst them and, from a seniority and leadership point of view, those two are huge for us.”

Those younger players, such as the likes of inexperienced locks Josh Lord and Tupou Vaa’i, will represent a swathe of changes from the All Blacks team that comfortably dispatched the Welsh last Sunday [NZT].

The selections of Lord, who made his test debut against the USA, and Vaa’i are inevitable given the injury status of veteran second rower Brodie Retallick, who damaged his shoulder at Principality Stadium.

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Plumtree confirmed Retallick wouldn’t come into the selection frame for Sunday’s [NZT] clash at Stadio Olimpico, but alleviated fears that the 30-year-old’s injury is of any serious nature.

“Brodie won’t play this weekend, but he’s improving really quickly. He’s got real good movement now in his shoulder,” Plumtree said.

“The contact part of it we’ll leave out this week to make sure his shoulder fully recovers. There’s clearly some damage there, but we’re going to give him the whole week so he can be right for next week.”

While Chiefs teammates Lord and Vaa’i stand as the frontrunners to start in New Zealand’s second row, who supports them on the bench remains to be seen.

With Retallick to be given the week off, the All Blacks have only one other fit and available out-and-out lock in the form of captain Sam Whitelock.

However, given his seniority and importance to the squad, Whitelock may also be rested as part of the sweeping changes in preparation of next week’s clash in Dublin and for the following week’s match in Paris.

If that is the case, it could be Frizell that is given the nod to ride the pine as the back-up lock, a prospect of which All Blacks head coach Ian Foster has previously alluded to since he doesn’t have the services of Scott Barrett or Patrick Tuipulotu on this tour.

Like Coles, Frizell hasn’t played for the All Blacks since their second test against Fiji in July as he encountered visa issues as the All Blacks travelled to Australia for the Rugby Championship due to three assault charges he faced at the time.

Having been cleared of all charges, Frizell has returned to the squad after having turned out for Tasman in the NPC, but he missed the clash against the United States due to injury.

That leaves the 27-year-old blindside flanker due for an appearances against the Italians, although that may come in the less familiar position of lock, especially with Plumtree emphasising the competition he faces for the No 6 jersey.

“He’s looking really good. We’re looking to get him involved in the weekend. He’s been over here since the USA test, but still carrying a slight injury,” Plumtree said.

“He’s good to go now, so there’s some good competition for Shannon in that position, obviously with Akira [Ioane] and with Ethan [Blackadder], so I’m sure he’s looking forward to getting out on the park and giving us a reminder of what he can do.”

In terms of the opposition the All Blacks are set to face this weekend, Plumtree made special mention of Italian first-five Paolo Garbisi, whose form for Top 14 club Montpellier has kept Springboks playmaker Handre Pollard out of the side’s No 10 jersey.

Instead, Pollard has been shifted to second-five as Montpellier challenge for a play-offs spot in the early stages of France’s premier domestic competition.

Some may view that as a reflection of Garbisi’s quality, but Plumtree maintained he and his colleagues are more focussed on what the All Blacks can produce with tougher fixtures ahead.

“Nice player and pretty experienced, so certainly a player that we have to be very wary about on the weekend,” Plumtree said of Garbisi.

“But, again, I’ll go back to what I said before, where our big focus this weekend has been based around us and making sure that we are going to make some changes and making sure that our team’s ready to go.”

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