WELLINGTON (Reuters) - All Blacks coach Steve Hansen could go a long way to deciding his starting flyhalf against England next month after the Wellington Hurricanes host the Waikato Chiefs in Super Rugby this weekend.
Hurricanes flyhalf Beauden Barrett, who injured his hip last week against the Otago Highlanders, will start the game on Saturday while Aaron Cruden should come off the bench for the Chiefs after returning from a broken thumb.
With veteran Daniel Carter on sabbatical until after the three-test series that begins on June 7, Cruden has the inside running for the role after principally serving as the starting flyhalf last year when Carter was out injured.
Barrett, however, has impressed with his all-round play this season and local pundits had suggested he was in better form than the Chiefs pivot before Cruden broke his thumb and was ruled out for six weeks.
The Chiefs mulled bringing Cruden straight back into the fray after his recovery, however, his absence due to an All Blacks training camp and the solid form of Gareth Anscombe had meant they would ease him back from the bench.
“That decision was made early in the week when we looked at the amount of time it was going to take to get Aaron back after his time away with the All Blacks,” Chiefs assistant coach Tom Coventry told reporters on a conference call.
“He probably needed a full week with us so I think we just decided that considering he’s been out for a little while and his unavailability early in the week it was prudent to leave Gareth in his position.”
Coventry added the match should also provide healthy competition for other All Blacks positions, with the second training camp in Wellington starting on Sunday before Hansen names his 31-man squad for the series on June 1.
”Those little battles are always important for players,“ Coventry said. ”They are always conscious of them.
“They are not really spoken of a lot but I‘m sure in the back of those boys’ minds that they are challenging for starting positions in the All Blacks that’s important for them ... but I think the boys are probably more focused on how well this team needs to play this weekend to get a result.”
The clash at Wellington Regional Stadium on Saturday also has big ramifications for the Super Rugby season.
Mark Hammett’s Hurricanes are in eighth place on 31 points and must win to hold a slim chance of making the top-six play-offs positions in a tightly compressed table.
The Chiefs lead the New Zealand conference and sit third overall on the points table, with the top two teams at the end of the regular season earning home advantage through the play-offs.
Coach Dave Rennie has said the right to play at home was a factor in the Chiefs’ run to the last two titles.
The Hurricanes face only New Zealand sides for their final four games, jostling for position with the fifth-placed Highlanders (34) and sixth-placed Canterbury Crusaders (32) who have all also played one less game.
As such, they must win all of their remaining games. While each is now essentially a ‘final’, captain Conrad Smith said they had tried to just treat the week as they would any other.
“We have obviously been keen to approach it like we do most weeks ... but there has been an edge,” he told reporters in Wellington.
”We realised that it is all riding on the next four weeks and we can’t slip up.
“That makes it tough but sometimes you have to enjoy the challenge as well.”
Editing by Ian Ransom