WELLINGTON: Ryan Crotty's impressive return to rugby at the weekend will have given Steve Hansen plenty of reasons to be cheerful as the All Blacks assemble in Hamilton on Monday to begin the final stages of their preparation for the World Cup.
Crotty had not played for two months after breaking his thumb in the Super Rugby semi-final but returned for Canterbury in New Zealand's provincial championship on Saturday.
The midfield back scored two tries and set up another in his 40 minutes at Southland. Perhaps more importantly, though, he came through the match unscathed.
"He made a difference," Canterbury coach Joe Maddock told the New Zealand Herald about Crotty's performance. "From the All Blacks point of view they'll be happy he got through 40 minutes."
Crotty could make his international return on Sept. 7 against Tonga in both sides' final warmup match before the World Cup, with Hansen keen on fielding as strong a side as possible.
Jack Goodhue, who sustained a hamstring injury against Australia last month, could also return in that match while Sonny Bill Williams might also be given another opportunity to get more game time.
Williams has been beset by injury over the last three years and was sent back to provincial rugby by Hansen to improve his fitness ahead of the final Bledisloe Cup clash with Australia.
After appearing in two games for provincial side Counties Manukau, Williams then returned to the All Blacks set-up and played almost 70 minutes against the Wallabies, proving he was on track for the global showpiece in Japan.
While Hansen will be keen to give his first-choice side an opportunity on Saturday, one area in which he may look to experiment is at flyhalf.
He has selected just two specialists, Richie Mo'unga and Beauden Barrett, for the World Cup and local media have reported Josh Ioane could be given an opportunity to make his test debut against Tonga despite not making the World Cup squad.
Ioane is likely to have been told to stay ready in case Mo'unga or Barrett go down with a serious injury in Japan, though Hansen said last week that Crotty, Jordie Barrett or scrumhalf TJ Perenara would play there in an emergency.
After the Tonga game, the All Blacks open their World Cup campaign in Pool B against South Africa on Sept. 21 before facing Canada, Namibia and Italy.
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Peter Rutherford)