All Blacks may grant veteran Somerville an early release to join up with Gloucester

New Zealand will consider granting their 'Star Wars' prop Greg Somerville an early release to kick off his English career at Gloucester next month.

The veteran All Black, nicknamed 'Yoda' after the 900-year-old Jedi Master in the blockbuster film, had not been due at Kingsholm before December until All Black coach Graham Henry suggested that Saturday's Tri-Nations decider against Australia in Brisbane could be Somerville's last international as the most-capped Kiwi prop of all time.

The 65-Test tighthead may not be required for New Zealand's Grand Slam assault on the four home countries in November.

Greg Somerville

Greg Somerville may be on his way to Gloucester soon

'Greg is eligible for selection if we need him,' Henry said. 'The tour is still six weeks away and if we have a problem at tighthead, he may well tour.

'Greg is highly respected by the other fellas.   He's everyone's mate - one of those players who has been the backbone of the team for a long time. We'll miss him, on and off the field.'

Somerville, 31 in November, will be the tenth member of New Zealand's World Cup squad to head for richer pastures in Europe since the quarter-final flop against France 11 months ago.

The prospect of his strengthening Gloucester will offer some comfort to a club shaken by Sunday's 20-8 defeat by Leicester, their heaviest home Premiership defeat in four seasons.

Another of the Premiership's new All Blacks is resigned to being out of action for at least a month. Harlequins have been told that the knee damage which truincated Nick Evans's debut against Saracens last weekend will take four-to-six weeks to repair which leaves the Londoners in some danger of having to start their European Cup campaign without him.

Wayne Barnes, the English referee whom some of the more myopic All Blacks still blame for their World Cup eliminaton, will be in charge of the opening Test of the autumn series, against Scotland at Murrayfield on November 8.

South African Mark Lawrence will referee the Test against Ireland on November 15, his compatriot Jonathan Kaplan against Wales on November 22 and Ireland's Alain Rolland against England at Twickenham on November 29.

The Lions have called on South Africa to appoint neutral officials for all ten tour matches next summer, not just the Test series. Andre Watson, manager of South Africa's referees, says the request will be considered.

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