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In the running: All Blacks front row

There is enough beef in All Blacks front row stocks to make them formidable up front again this year, starting with their June Test series against Ireland.

New All Blacks coach Steven Hansen will have been watching closely to see which of the big boys are fronting up, and the usual candidates appear to be leading the race as things stand.

Despite the Blues’ awful season, the one player who has emerged with his reputation intact is the hero of the World Cup final, Tony Woodcock. The big loosehead has scrummed his heart out and been a factor around the park, although his recurring injuries will be of some concern.

Woodcock’s Blues teammate Charlie Faumuina has also shown a lot of promise at tighthead and is a solid pillar at scrum time, although he must battle with Owen Franks for the No.3 jersey.

The Crusaders boast three world class props in the Franks brothers Owen and Ben, with Wyatt Crockett a hardened loosehead who has been unlucky to be on the fringes of the All Blacks for a few years.

Highlanders skipper Jamie Mackintosh is another tough loosehead, but gives the impression that Super Rugby might be his level and the Test scene one step too far.

The youngster making a big impression is Chiefs tighthead Ben Tameifuna. The 20-year-old former New Zealand Under-20 star is a massive 134 kgs and has been a revelation in the Chiefs front row this season. Tameifuna’s cousin Sona Taumololo is in incredible form, scoring tries on top of all his other great work in the scrums and rucks, but he has played Test rugby for Tonga and can’t be picked by the All Blacks.

Hooker is an area of concern for New Zealand, with only the ‘old guard’ making any real impression this season and it could be fight between Andrew Hore and Keven Mealamu for the No.2 jersey once again.

The 33-year-old Hore is the outstanding candidate, playing some excellent rugby for the Highlanders and a top man in all the physical exchanges. The tough farmer has strong hands and you’ll struggle to keep any ball he gets hold of.

Mealamu has been in poor form this year and is in danger of missing out through injury anyway, while Crusaders rake Corey Flynn is an option, but at 31 age is not on his side.

Hika Elliot from the Chiefs and Hurricanes’ Dane Coles are the younger hookers in the running to inject some new blood into the middle of the front row.

The All Blacks starting front row:

1 Tony Woodcock:
If the stalwart loosehead can prove his fitness before the first Test, then he’ll get the nod given the good work he’s done for a struggling Blues outfit. It’ll be tough on Crockett once again, who is next in line to be the No.1 for the All Blacks.

2 Andrew Hore:
He may be a little long in the tooth these days, but Hore is currently the best hooker in New Zealand and unlike maybe of his rivals he is much stronger at line-out time and is an inspiration to those around him with a never say die attitude.

3 Owen Franks:
The youngster in the front panel, but as strong and tough as any and becoming one of the premier tightheads in world rugby. It must be frightening in the Franks household at meal times, because there is no shortage of beef and muscle.

Bench:

16 Hika Elliot:
With Mealamu an injury doubt and out of form, and Flynn on the wrong side of 30 the man to sit on the bench must be Elliot. The Chiefs No.2 has a much stronger all round game than Coles, who runs around like a headless chicken at times and disappears when things get tight.

17 Ben Franks:
His versatility plays as a major advantage, with Crockett and Faumuina specialists on only one side of the scrum. Ben Franks might be further down the pecking order for a starting berth, but he is the ideal man to offer prop cover from the bench.

By Timmy Hancox

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