Dagg Back In The Fold, Vunipola Ruled Out

9 Days to the British & Irish Lions’ first game in NZ, in Whangarei, against the Provincial Union Team, and exactly 30 days to the Lions’ First Test against the All Blacks. Since our last article, there have been withrawals from the Lions camp and host of All Blacks making comebacks to fitness.

Players Ruled Out

Probably the biggest news since our last injury update is that Billy Vunipola has been ruled out for the Tour after picking up a shoulder injury in Saturday’s Premiership semi-final defeat to Exeter. James Haskell was called up, and as a number 7, that means the Lions team goes to NZ with only 2 specialized number 8s in the Welsh duo of Toby Faletau and Ross Moriarty.

Ben Youngs at scrum half also had to withdraw due to personal reasons. Prayers go out to his family.

Just after posting the article on Mar 5 about how important Liam Squire could prove to be for the ABs as loosies cover, he sustained an injury similar to Kieran Read’s that evening… he broke his thumb. Now he faces at least another 3 weeks out, a race against time.

Scott Barrett too suffered damage to the medial ligament in his right knee, and also hurt his ankle in the Crusaders’ showdown with the Hurricanes two weeks ago and is expected to miss another week or two.

Easing All Blacks Injury Woes

In probably the best sight for the All Blacks coaching staff this past weekend was seeing Lima Sopoaga and Aaron Smith both come off the bench, the former returning from a long hamstring layoff, to help put up half a century against the hapless Western Force. Ben Smith is back to full fitness and is in the squad to face the Waratahs in Dunedin. Great news for the Highlanders who have had injured players in double figures almost all season.

Nehe Milner-Skudder is the one player who gives the All Blacks back 3 great versatility and we’ll be hoping he could get back to fitness. According to Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd, “he has progressed from straight-line running to running with a change of direction”, and for him it’s now a matter of conditioning, still a long shot. His teammate and starting All Blacks hooker Dane Coles has started training too, even though under prescribed heart rate to monitor his calf injury and concussion issues, and so far he seems to have not felt pain or gotten headaches. Skudz seems to be the one closer to return.

All Blacks captain Keiran Read recently signed a new contract to stay in NZ until 2019. He struggled to sign the deal with a broken thumb, but the cast should be coming off in next two-and-a-half weeks, then another x-ray to determine how it has healed and thereafter the process to get back to playing begins. He’ll more than likely miss the All Blacks warm-up game against Samoa on June 10. Full-back maestro, Israel Dagg is arguably the most crucial one back. His knee injury didn’t look great when he got hurt against the Reds in round 3 of Super Rugby. He has already played club rugby on his return, was considered against the Chiefs last week in Fiji, but he didn’t feature in that game. He will instead start his first Super Rugby match back against the Rebels in Melbourne, playing on the wing.

Besides devouring tarantulas and centipedes, Jerome Kaino is still targeting that first Lions’ game or possibly the second one as he recovers from surgery to fix a slight meniscus tear.

All Blacks 23

We did a matchday 23 had the series began a month ago based on form and player availability then. Over the past month, not much has changed and the struggles of picking the loose trio starters and bench still remains the biggest challenge.

The Crusaders have won 12 in a row, and had a magnificent victory last weekend against a contender in the Chiefs, a highly entertaining derby down in Suva, Fiji. They did so without the services of All Blacks captain Read and Ryan Crotty, who came off due to concussion early in the game. Matt Todd too was ruled out just before the game. They will have a host of players who could be selected as cover in the All Blacks squad due to their form and consistency at a high level during this unbeaten start to Super Rugby. Jordan Taufua has definitely made a case for a place in the backrow as cover over the past few weeks. He lacks the height of other backrow challengers, but is still a reliable lineout option for the Crusaders and hits very hard in defence. He has played alot of minutes for the Crusaders proving his durability, and is a good ball carrier. Recently he has played all over that backrow and versatility to play the 6 and 8 works in his favour.

Seta Tamanivalu didn’t make my squad last time out as I thought his hamstring worries had been limiting his playing time and impact(for those of us that have torn those playing rugby, it’s one of the most frustrating injuries). He has definitely come of his own in recent weeks, and is doing the business for the Saders alongside his nephew Manasa Mataele on the opposite wing. He has been playing on the wing but starts at outside centre this weekend against the Rebels, where he predominantly played for the Chiefs. Again, versatility and the fact that he has been capped in Black doesn’t hurt.

Jordy Barrett has been key to the Hurricanes counter attacking and impressive try scoring. He is yet to feature for the All Blacks main team but was a stand out in the U20s, is one that has gone through the system and will be a future All Black. His size and goal kicking ability and range gives him an advatage over Damian McKenzie even though the Chief is a more elusive counter attacking presence, leading the Super Rugby competition in run metres and players beaten. That, plus an extra season of Super Rugby under his belt.

Here’s our matchday 23:

Starting XV

Backs: B Barrett; W Naholo, M Fekitoa, A Lienert-Brown, J Savea; A Cruden, A Smith.

Forwards S Luatua, M Todd, S Cane (captain); S Whitelock, B Retallick; O Franks, C Taylor, J Moody.

Reserves L Coltman, W Crockett, C Faumuina, L Romano, A Savea, TJ Perenara, L Sopoaga, G Moala.

We will stick to our rule of not picking any injured players.

Crotty came off last week due to concussion and won’t feature this week for the Crusaders. Anton Lienert-Brown takes over his jersey and Lima Sopoaga makes the bench. Seta Tamanivalu and Sonny Bill Williams are back in the fray.

Luke Romano comes in for Scott Barrett.

Steven Luatua comes in at number 8 for Liam Messam who drops out altogether.

Moala drops to the bench and Naholo starts on the wing.