WELLINGTON: Recalled tighthead prop Nepo Laulala looks certain to be rushed back into the All Blacks squad for their Rugby Championship opener against Australia next week after impressing in the side's only warmup match.
First-choice tighthead Owen Franks is battling an Achilles injury and the All Blacks said earlier this week he would need to be monitored ahead of the clash against the Wallabies in Sydney on Aug. 19.
Laulala played four tests in 2015 but missed all of last year due to a knee injury. He has been recalled to the squad to fill the hole left by Charlie Faumuina, who has decided to make the switch to France with Top 14 club Toulouse.
Hooker Dane Coles was impressed by Laulala after they played together for much of the All Blacks warmup 'match' on Friday, a half-game each against provincial teams Taranaki and Counties-Manukau.
"He's a great scrummager," said Coles. "He's a world-class player and whatever happens next week I'm sure he'll be ready to go if he gets a chance."
The All Blacks beat Taranaki 57-7 in one half before routing Counties 49-0 in the other, running in a total of 16 tries.
Coles himself has barely played this season after suffering knee and calf injuries and concussion symptoms and only returned to the field during the Super Rugby playoffs.
The 30-year-old said the warmup match had been a good opportunity for him to get some game time, while the team looked to gel their combinations and playing style in their defence of the southern hemisphere title.
"It was good to have a bit of a run-around after a couple of weeks off, and just to get a bit of continuity and combinations amongst the boys," Coles said.
"It was also good just to get the lungs going again, blow off the cobwebs."
While Australian rugby is currently in turmoil, Coles was quick to dampen down expectations for next week's game against the Wallabies.
Not one of Australia's five Super Rugby sides were able to record a victory against the five New Zealand teams this season, ending with an abysmal 0-26 record, while the Wallabies were beaten by Scotland in June and barely held off Italy.
"We threw the ball around and scored some tries but it's not going be that easy next week, that's for sure," Coles said.
"I'm sure there will be plenty more hard work that has to go into next week to get a performance we can be proud of.
"It's going to be a big week for sure and we've got to really step it up."
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Peter Rutherford)