The New Zealand public may not have seen the last of All Blacks playing in the Mitre 10 Cup this year.
That’s the glimmer of hope provided by Canterbury co-coach Reuben Thorne for those eager to see New Zealand’s top players back in action in the country’s premier provincial competition.
There was plenty of fanfare surrounding the availability of All Blacks for the opening fortnight of the Mitre 10 Cup as players from Ian Foster’s 35-man squad were released to play for their respective provinces.
That blanket availability of players across the country led to the likes of the Barrett brothers playing a key role in Taranaki’s 23-22 Ranfurly Shield victory over a Canterbury side stacked with numerous All Blacks.
Similarly, Auckland and Wellington were brimming with All Blacks when they faced off at Eden Park on Sunday, while the likes of Damian McKenzie, Sevu Reece and Aaron Smith were standouts for Waikato, Tasman and Manawatu, respectively.
The prospect of those players returning to the Mitre 10 Cup were effectively nullified, however, when it was announced that Foster’s squad would congregate for a three-day camp in Whakatane beginning on Monday.
Another three-day camp is set to take place in Hamilton next week, before the team assembles again ahead of the All Blacks’ first test of the year, a Bledisloe Cup clash against the Wallabies in Wellington on October 11.
Foster’s side will then take on Dave Rennie’s team again a week later in Auckland before jetting off to Australia with 11 additional players for the Rugby Championship, which is due to kick-off on November 7.
Quarantine restrictions to and from Australia will mean the All Blacks will spend nine weeks away from home, which has virtually eliminated the prospect New Zealand’s top brass of talent from returning en masse to the Mitre 10 Cup.
However, Thorne revealed to Stuff that he has received word that players may become available in the lead-up to the All Blacks’ departure to Australia on a “case-by-case” basis.
“All we’ve heard is that there may be some players released on a case-by-case scenario. Exactly when we find out, I’m not sure,” Thorne said.
“We’ve got a plan to be without them, and if we get one or two drop back in at some stage, that’s a bonus.”
Without #AllBlacks playing in the #Mitre10Cup, the competition will lose plenty of its stardust over the coming weeks, and the impact of their departures will differ for each province.https://t.co/n6Nw8aeV7O
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 21, 2020
Should some All Blacks be released back to their provinces before Foster’s squad jet off across the Tasman, it is unlikely the established members of the side would be let go leading into the Bledisloe Cup series.
Consequently, it’s highly improbable that those such as Smith, Beauden Barrett and Sam Cane will return to their sides over the coming weeks.
However, those on the periphery of the squad or lacking substantial game time through injury may be among those back in provincial colours within the next month.
Those that fit that bill include Tasman lock Quinten Strange, who missed most of the Super Rugby season with a hand injury, and his Crusaders teammate Cullen Grace, who recently returned to action from a broken thumb via Canterbury.
Auckland coach Alama Ieremia also told Stuff that he would lavish the chance for star man Patrick Tuipulotu, who missed Auckland’s first two matches of the season through an Achilles injury, to suit up in the blue and white hoops this weekend.
The return of Grace would be a much-welcomed one for Thorne, who told Stuff of his disappointment at losing the Log O’ Wood after only three defences.
“At the end of the day, when we look at that game, we will reflect on a pretty average start. You can’t give a team with the quality Taranaki had a head start and expect to come back,” he said.
Canterbury will look to bounce back from the defeat when they face Championship side Hawke’s Bay in Napier on Saturday.
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