WELLINGTON – The All Blacks go into their first pre-World Cup camp on Monday hampered by a rising injury toll and expecting more casualties before they begin their title defence in Japan in September.
Damian McKenzie is the latest to be sidelined after limping off with knee damage during Saturday's bruising Super Rugby derby match between the Waikato Chiefs and Auckland Blues.
The utility back joins at least nine other All Blacks on an injury list headed by Sonny Bill Williams and Owen Franks, who were both members of the successful New Zealand sides that won the last two World Cups in 2011 and 2015.
The Chiefs were reluctant to speculate on the extent of McKenzie's injury but said in a brief statement that he would be having an MRI scan and will be assessed further in the coming days.
His fellow All Blacks Brodie Retallick and Nathan Harris also took severe knocks in the Chiefs' 33-29 victory but their injuries were said to be not serious.
World Cup years add an extra urgency to the high-stakes New Zealand derbies, which are seen as unofficial All Blacks trials and the ferocity of play leads to injuries.
"We know there will be (more) injuries in the next two or three months so our whole planning now is based on what happens when this happens," All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster told Radio Sport.
"We dont like it but we've just got to make sure we control what we can control and have the best possible medical programme that gives them a fighting chance to come back strong."
Most of the currently injured All Blacks are among the 41 players named to attend the day-long camp which will "provide an opportunity for All Blacks management and our leading players to start building towards what is a huge year ahead", said New Zealand Rugby's high performance chief Mike Anthony.
Williams, who has been plagued by injury in recent years, has undergone knee surgery which will keep him out for about six weeks.
The full extent of Franks' shoulder injury remains unknown but at the very least he will miss the next few weeks.
"We're going to rescan in two weeks to see how the healing is going, to see how serious it is. But, at the moment, he won't play for the next few weeks," Canterbury Crusaders coach Scott Robertson said.
Foster said that while injuries are a problem, there was still plenty of time for players to prove their fitness.
"We have five Test matches before the World Cup. There may be some players who may not get a lot of chance through injury to come back into Super Rugby but may get an opportunity to show they are at the right level after that," he said.
All Blacks openside flanker Sam Cane has not played since suffering a broken neck against South Africa last year and has only just been cleared to resume contact training.
Also out with injury are scrum-half Aaron Smith, loose forwards Liam Squire and Luke Whitelock, hooker Codie Taylor, and wings Waisake Naholo and George Bridge.
Israel Dagg, one of the stars of the 2011 campaign, was forced to retire early this month because of a persistent knee injury that has troubled him for the past two years.AFP