All Blacks injury "crisis" eases as Barrett, Reece show form

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Only two weeks ago a season-ending injury to utility back Damian McKenzie had headlines proclaiming an "injury crisis" for the All Blacks ahead of the Rugby World Cup.

McKenzie's ability to cover flyhalf and fullback has made him integral in the last two seasons to an All Blacks game plan which requires two playmakers on the field at all times.

The loss of McKenzie to a serious knee injury seemed likely to hit the All Blacks hard as he provides better coverage than other candidates as backup for flyhalf specialists Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo'unga. It seems likely New Zealand will include three flyhalves in its World Cup squad.

Pundits surveyed the field of flyhalf candidates outside the current squad and lighted on Blues pivot Otere Black as the next-best option. Some commentators suggested relaxing New Zealand's residency regulations to allow the selection of current Sunwolves and former Highlanders flyhalf Hayden Parker.

Head coach Steve Hansen shrugged off any suggestion of a crisis and suggested he and his fellow selectors have several players in mind to cover No. 10 in McKenzie's absence.

The weekend's 11th round of Super Rugby appeared to prove Hansen's suggestion that the field of candidates for all backline positions is crowded.

Hurricanes utility Jordie Barrett moved back to fullback for Saturday's match against the Chiefs and provided the selectors with a timely reminder of his ability, scoring two tries in the first six minutes and providing assists in others.

The Crusaders alone have such an abundance of backline talent, they were forced to omit the season's leading try-scorer, fullback Will Jordan, from their lineup for Friday's match against the Lions.

One-test winger George Bridge returned from a knee injury to score two tries in two minutes in the second half and to remind the selectors that he remains a potent attacking force. And winger Sevu Reece kept up his outstanding form to push his long-odds claim to World Cup selection.

Reece was let go by the Chiefs after facing domestic violence charges but was thrown a career lifeline by the Crusaders which he has grasped with both hands.

Crusaders coach Scott Robertson has moved to shield Reece from distracting speculation about his All Blacks chances.

"Look, it's pretty special form," Robertson said. "I could chuck in that speculation myself but it's not for me to do that. He just needs to keep playing well.

"He's little but powerful and explosive and creates a lot. It's a really good get for us. I'm just really proud of him, what he's achieved on and off the field."

In light of those performances any serious injury crisis seems to have been averted. Hansen is more likely to be concerned by the long-term absences through injury of lock Brodie Retallick and center Sonny Bill Williams who are likely to return in the concluding weeks of the regular season.


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