Graham Henry had one eye on the wreckage of last year’s World Cup and the other on the blue blade of the executioner’s axe hanging over his neck in announcing the New Zealand team for the Test against Ireland in Wellington on Saturday.
Phil Wilkins writes on RugbyHeaven Aus that you don’t stay head coach of the All Blacks long if you meddle with the public’s passionately held and knowledgeable views about New Zealand’s players.
“I say sack the whole lot of the bastards,” rasped the legendary second-rower of 55 Tests, Colin “Pinetree” Meads, at a sportsmen’s night last month, summarising the nation’s foul mood about the selectors.
Gone this week were the fearless “conditioning program” and the experimentation and unproven combinations of last year’s campaign, which ultimately led to the All Blacks losing their World Cup quarter-final with France 20-18.
A chastened selection panel of Henry, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen released a team based on an emphatic policy of “combinations are crucial”.
Into New Zealand’s front row comes Andrew Hore, the tough, unsparing hooker, probably the best of all the Super 14 tournament rakes, and his versatile Hurricanes front-row partner, loose-head Neemia Tialata. The Blues’ 122 kilogram prop John Afoa anchors the scrum at tight-head.
In midfield, the Hurricanes pairing of Ma’a Nonu at inside-centre and Conrad Smith at No.13 have been selected outside Crusaders’ halfback Andy Ellis and five-eighth Daniel Carter.
With blindside breakaway Jerry Collins retired, the selectors opted to move Test No.8 Rodney So’oialo to side of the pack and Blues back-rower Jerome Kaino to take his place.
Because of the exodus of All Blacks to club rugby in the northern hemisphere, only eight of the 17 World Cup forwards remain and seven of the 14 backs. Prop Tony Woodcock and halfback Brendon Leonard were unavailable because of injury.
The chapter on Mils Muliaina as a midfielder appears to have been closed, with selectors returning him to fullback. However, his head-to-head battle with Leon MacDonald for the position will be an engrossing, season-long struggle.
The only new face in the starting XV is Blues’ winger Anthony Tuitavake, who becomes All Black No.1072, while three other uncapped players have been named on the bench: second-rower Anthony Boric (Blues), loose forward Adam Thomson (Highlanders) and five-eighth Stephen Donald (Chiefs).
When the New Zealand Rugby Union announced it would retain Henry as head coach, it gifted Australia Robbie Deans. It was an enormous favour. But it kept the axe under its coat, making sure Henry was presented with only a two-year contract.
All Blacks as announced by the NZRFU:
1. Neemia Tialata
2. Andrew Hore
3. John Afoa
4. Brad Thorn
5. Ali Willliams
6. Rodney So’oialo
7. Richie McCaw (c)
8. Jerome Kaino
9. Andy Ellis
10. Dan Carter
11. Sitiveni Sivivatu
12. Ma’a Nonu
13. Conrad Smith
14. Anthony Tuitavake
15. Mils Muliaina
16. Keven Mealamu
17. John Schwalger
18. Anthony Boric
19. Adam Thomson
20. Jimmy Cowan
21. Stephen Donald
22. Leon MacDonald