June 3, 2018 / 2:12 AM / 18 days ago

Rugby-All Blacks facing test of depth ahead of France opener

WELLINGTON, June 3 (Reuters) - All Blacks coach Steve Hansen looks likely to face a severe test of his squad’s depth for the first test against France next week after a string of injuries over the last few days further denuded his already depleted his stocks.

The All Blacks were always going to be without captain Kieran Read, who is still recovering from back surgery, but the number eight has been joined on the casualty list by a handful of other first-choice players.

The latest was Brodie Retallick, who suffered a pectoral injury playing for the Waikato Chiefs in Super Rugby on Saturday.

Chiefs coach Gavin Cooper told local media on Sunday that the injury was serious and Retallick was unlikely to face the French in Auckland.

Stand-in skipper Sam Whitelock, Retallick’s second row partner, must also be rated doubtful for the Eden Park contest after missing the Canterbury Crusaders’ last three matches because of concussion symptoms.

Cooper had marginally better news about All Blacks openside flanker Sam Cane, who, he said, might not have been a late withdrawal from the Chiefs’ bench with an abdominal strain on Saturday had the match been a playoff.

Crusaders number eight Jordan Taufua (calf) and centre Jack Goodhue (hamstring), both named in Hansen’s squad for the France series, were unable to take to the field to face the Chiefs because of injuries.

Another loose forward, Liam Squire, faces an almost certain ban of at least one week after a disciplinary hearing later on Sunday, where he will face a charge of dangerous play.

Among the contenders to replace Read at the back of the scrum, Squire led with his shoulder when clearing out Wellington Hurricanes scrumhalf TJ Perenara while playing for the Otago Highlanders on Friday.

Hansen last week called up Chiefs prop Karl Tu’inukuafe to his squad as cover for Tim Perry (hamstring) and will have been relieved to hear the loosehead was only suffering cramp when he was taken off the field in Hamilton.

First-choice loosehead Joe Moody recently returned from shoulder surgery, while Kane Hames, who won eight caps last year, has not played at all this season as he battles concussion.

Goodhue’s injury is just the latest to hit Hansen’s midfield options after Sonny Bill Williams was ruled out for the series on Friday after undergoing knee surgery.

Ryan Crotty, who with Williams forms Hansen’s preferred centre partnership, also missed Super Rugby action for the Crusaders on Saturday because of concussion.

The consensus over the last few years is that New Zealand could beat most of their international rivals with a team of reserves such is their strength in depth and the world champions look like they could be in the position of having to prove that against the French next Saturday. (Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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