Blues star Anthony Tuitavake is the only debutant in the All Blacks’ starting XV to take on Ireland in Saturday’s first test of the season in Wellington, but it’s in the loose forward mix where Graham Henry has sprung the biggest surprise.
Marc Hinton writes for Rugby Heaven.
Tuitavake is named, as expected, on the right wing of a backline that is as close to full strength as possible at this stage of the season. He will become All Black No 1072 when he runs out on to Westpac Stadium.
Also as anticipated Henry has gone with established combinations, with the Hurricanes pair of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith getting the nod in midfield and the Crusaders halves duo of Andy Ellis and Dan Carter asked to back up on their efforts in last Saturday night’s Super 14 final.
These selections were heavily signposted by coach Henry and co on Sunday when they suggested the short buildup would require as many familiar combinations as possible.
All told there are five Crusaders in the starting XV and another on the bench in the form of Leon MacDonald.
With Richard Kahui not yet quite right for his first test outing in the midfield, that left Smith as the logical partner for Nonu as he attempts to nail down a long-term run at second five. The fact that these two played much of the Super 14 campaign together reinforces their selection.
With Mils Muliaina fit to take his place at fullback, and Sitiveni Sivivatu an automatic selection on the left wing, Carter and Ellis were the best bet in the halves. They bring some hot form off the back of their efforts in the Super 14 final into the mix and Henry is confident tiredness will not be an issue for them.
Chiefs halfback Brendon Leonard remains on the injured list, meaning Jimmy Cowan gets backup duties, and it would have been too big a call to ask Stephen Donald to step straight into a test in the pivot with such a short preparation time.
Up front Henry has sprung a surprise by naming Blues standout Jerome Kaino at No 8 and switching regular back-of-the-scrum man Rodney So’oialo to the blindside flank.
Again this is a move that has been hinted at, but runs contrary to Super 14 form where Kaino played mostly at No 6 for the Blues and So’oialo almost exclusively on the back of the scrum. Both players, however, have plenty of experience in their respective positions for the test.
There is also another outing for seasoned Crusaders second-rowers Ali Williams and Brad Thorn, with the match signalling the return to test football after a four-year absence for the former Aussie league star. Keeping with the theme, they take a tried and tested locking combination into the match.
The front row is an interesting one. Aucklander John Afoa gets first chance to stake his claim at tighthead prop, Andrew Hore wins the tight race this week against Keven Mealamu at hooker while his Hurricanes team-mate Neemia Tialata gets the loosehead responsibilities in the absence of the injured Tony Woodcock.
There are three potential debutants in the reserves as well, with Blues lock Anthony Boric, Highlanders loosie Adam Thomson and Chiefs five-eighth Stephen Donald all set to see action off the pine.
“We’ve gone for established combinations where possible,” said Henry, “but we’ve also had to factor in a few injuries and are mindful that several players were involved in the Super 14 final on the weekend.
“The challenge is to work in our new players and new game plan,” he added.
“We expect Ireland to be well-prepared, experienced and perhaps with some new confidence as well after Munster’s success in the European championship.”
Prop Tony Woodwock, halfback Brendon Leonard and midfield back Richard Kahui were not considered for selection due to injury.
As another sidelight to the selection, there are six survivors from the starting team that was bundled out of the World Cup at the quarter-final stage by France last October in Cardiff.
The not-so-super six who started in the 18-20 loss at Cardiff are skipper Richie McCaw, So’oialo, Williams, Carter, Sivivatu and Muliaina. Interestingly, two are playing in different positions, with Muliaina having worn the No 13 jersey in Cardiff and So’oialo at No 8.
NEW ZEALAND: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Anthony Tuitavake, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Andy Ellis; 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Rodney So’oialo, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 John Afoa, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Neemia Tialata. Reserves: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 John Schwalger, 18 Anthony Boric, 19 Adam Thomson, 20 Jimmy Cowan, 21 Stephen Donald, 22 Leon MacDonald.Tweet