Sickness has swept through the All Blacks camp.
Some management and the majority of the expanded 34-man squad, except for reserve hooker Hika Elliot and wing Julian Savea, have been affected by the 24-hour bug which first struck in Cardiff last week.
All Blacks No 8 Kieran Read revealed most player had endured ‘guided tours of their bathrooms’.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said while it had been a trying week with Andrew Hore’s suspension distraction and the vomiting and diarrhea, he was confident the team would be fine for the final test of the season at Twickenham on Sunday (NZT).
Dan Carter, Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock – face fitness tests tomorrow before they are confirmed to start.
Hansen has delivered on his promise to pick the top side for the final two tests of the year, but first five-eighth Carter (Achilles), hooker Mealamu and prop Woodcock (both calf issues) must come through tomorrow’s training unscathed.
All three senior players are expected to recover, but if Carter is ruled out of his 94th test Aaron Cruden will start, Beauden Barrett comes on to the bench and Tamati Ellison will take Ben Smith’s place to provide second-five cover.
Dane Coles is on stand-by if Mealamu fails to recover. Elliot also adds cover. Wyatt Crockett is Woodcock’s replacement and, in that unlikely scenario, Ben Franks will join the reserves.
“DC, Woody and Kevvy obviously got through training the other day and we’re comfortable enough to name them at this stage, but they’ll have to get through Thursday [Friday NZT],” Hansen said after announcing his final test team of the year.
Other than Carter and Mealamu’s probable return, lock Brodie Retallick is the third change to the starting team that secured their third win of the European tour, and maintained their 20-match unbeaten run, in Cardiff last week.
Retallick deserves to start in his 13th test ahead of Luke Romano. Along with Sam Whitelock, the Chiefs’ go-to lineout man was New Zealand’s standout second-rower in Super Rugby this season. He showed strong impact off the bench against Wales after being paired with veteran Ali Williams in Rome.
A big, physical English pack should provide a solid gauge of Retallick’s All Black progression this year.
“He’s had a couple of games off the bench and has a big motor and goes all day long,” Hansen said. “We just think this game will suit him. It gives Luke a chance to have a break. Both of them are rookies and have had a big year so it’s just an opportunity to subtly change it but not too much.”
By selecting his first-choice line-up for the second week, Hansen has paid the English due respect and resisted the temptation to give fringe players one final opportunity to leave a lasting impression.
There was debate about handing loose-forward Victor Vito and halfback Piri Weepu a start, and following the early-season trend of rotating Julian Savea with Hosea Gear on the left wing, but the retention of the A team signals a determination not to be tripped up at the final hurdle.
“He’s clearly the best wing in his position, Cory Jane and him on form,” Hansen said of Savea, who has scored 10 tries in eight tests.
“He was really good in Cardiff. He was peppered with high balls. He’s learning all the time. He’s certainly not the finished product but he’s worthy of the start.”
Hansen’s men clearly want to reinforce their No 1 status at the so-called home of rugby.
“We thought about a lot of the players and how they are after such a long season,” he said. “We’ve recovered well as a group. We said we’d pick the best team for the last two tests and we’ve done that.
“There’s been a consistency through most of the season and we’ve tried to build the combinations and if guys are fit and available we’ve tried to pick them.”
New Zealand: Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Julian Savea, Dan Carter, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (c), Liam Messam, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Dane Coles, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumunia, Luke Romano, Victor Vito, Piri Weepu, Aaron Cruden, Ben Smith.