Rugby: Sotutu back from injury to press All Blacks claim

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Auckland Blues number eight Hoskins Sotutu has returned from a knee injury and been given the opportunity to press his final claims for the All Blacks after being named to start the North-South rugby match in Wellington on Saturday.

Sotutu, who was impressive in Super Rugby Aotearoa before getting injured in mid-July, will link with team mate Akira Ioane and the Wellington Hurricanes’ Ardie Savea in a powerful loose forward combination for the ‘North’ team.

All Blacks coach Ian Foster is scheduled to name his first squad on Sunday, with Sotutu a strong contender to replace former captain Kieran Read in the number eight jersey.

Sotutu’s Blues team mate Caleb Clarke, the son of former All Blacks winger/midfielder Eroni, has also been named to start on the left wing after impressing in the domestic competition.

“There’s a huge amount of talent in the side,” North coach John Plumtree, who is also Foster’s assistant, said in a statement on Thursday. “There’s some real power in the forwards and some speed in the backs.”

The ‘South’ team was predictably dominated by players from Super Rugby Aotearoa champions Canterbury Crusaders, with just four players in the starting team not from the Christchurch-based side.

The Hurricanes’ Jordie Barrett will play fullback for the ‘South’, having made his provincial debut for Canterbury while a student at university.

The match, between composite sides representing the country’s two main islands, was an almost annual fixture on the New Zealand Rugby calendar in the 20th Century but has been played just twice since 1986.

No fans will be able to attend the game at Wellington Regional Stadium because of social distancing restrictions due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Christopher Cushing