After much “discussion, debate” and even “difference of opinion”, the All Blacks selectors have cast aside the temptation to leave their winning side intact and made four personnel and two positional changes for Saturday’s second test against England.
Marc Hinton reports for www.rugbyheaven.co.nz.
It was not done lightly, coach Graham Henry assured us at Tuesday’s team announcement, and nor were the decisions made speedily. But whatever way it has been dressed up, it appears rotation, for now at least, is back on the table with the All Black coaches as they clearly keep one eye on the looming Tri-Nations with their latest selection.
Chiefs centre Richard Kahui and Blues wing Rudi Wulf are the two new caps named in the starting lineup, while Crusaders fullback Leon MacDonald and Highlanders loose forward Adam Thomson are the other newcomers to the starting XV that will run out at AMI Stadium.
There are also switches for Sitiveni Sivivatu, who shifts to the right wing to allow Wulf to occupy his preferred left side, and Rodney So’oialo, who returns to his more favoured position of No 8 to allow Thomson to operate where he roams most effectively, on the blindside.
Kahui gets the nod ahead of Conrad Smith, who drops out of the side, while Wulf will start on the left wing in place of the unlucky Anthony Tuitavake who cools his heels after what must have been a frustrating first couple of test matches.
But let’s look closer at the changes before we hear Henry and his cohorts offer their explanations.
MacDonald starting at fullback ahead of Mils Muliaina is a call you can live with, considering that the Cantab is a proven performer and offers a viable alternative in the No 15 jersey. More to the point, on form alone he deserves a chance to show his wares.
A similar logic could be applied to Wulf’s preference ahead of his unlucky Blues and North Harbour team-mate Tuitavake who hasn’t exactly been inundated with opportunities in his two starts in the black jersey. The All Blacks don’t ppear to lose a heck of a lot, and at the same time they hand Wulf a chance he has worked hard for (more so when you consider how far he has come since breaking his neck in a swimming pool accident).
It’s the selection of Kahui, who does look a player of real promise, ahead of Smith that will no doubt raise some hackles. Especially when you consider the following: how well Smith has played in the two tests thus far; how important it is to build this new midfield combination (at test level anyway); and how long it’s been since the All Blacks had a quality and settled one-two punch in the 12 and 13 jerseys.
The loose forward reshuffle will also concern some, though So’oialo’s return to the back of the scrum in place of Jerome Kaino at least offers a chance for Thomson to show whether he’s got the stuff to take that high-impact game of his to the test arena. Like Smith, Kaino has done nothing wrong, but been a victim of the selectors wanting to spread the net just that little bit further.
Of wanting, however briefly, to rotate the squad just that little bit.
“We’ve picked a team we hope can win a game and play well,” said Henry of his new-look lineup, “and to try and give some guys some experience at test match rugby they haven’t had before. We’ve got to look at the big picture.”
Henry said the selection of MacDonald ahead of Mil Muliaina had been more about having a quality alternative and wanting to give a player who had had a big workload and a few injuries a well-deserved break.
“Mils has had a lot of rugby, I think he only missed one Super 14 game, he captained his side, and he played the last two tests. He’s also a bit susceptible to injury and we’re trying to nurse him a wee bit.”
But in terms of the introuction of Kahui and Wulf for their first test caps in the backline and Thomson for his first start in the pack, it was mostly about wanting to give them some time under the harsh spotlight of a test.
“We want to make sure they have experience of playing at this level and we want to see how they handle it and we want them to get accustomed to it,” said Henry.
Henry conceded it had been a “big call” to change the midfield combination of Smith and Nonu which had gone so well in both of the previous two tests.
“There were a lot of discussions about the selections which took some time,” said Henry. “We’ve got to do well in this test and that’s the primary concern. But we need to make sure players are accustomed to playing test match rugby and blood them at this level. Trying to get that balance right is a major concern.”
He conceded Kahui hadn’t played a lot of rugby of late, but added “that’s why he’s playing at the weekend. He needs to play, he needs to get on the track and experience this level of football”.
Henry said that the call to make such a dramatic backline rehuffle had had nothing to do with the quality (or otherwise) of the England unit, but he did concede that it had been a decision not arrived at lightly.
“We’re delighted with the way the inside four of the backs played last week,” added Henry. “I know the backs selector was pretty keen for that to continue, but we also needed to make sure we looked at the future as well, and give those other guys an opportunity to play, and to put heat on. They may be better [than their rivals], we’ll have to wait and see.”
Asked if the widespread changes had been unanimous, Henry indicated that the debate had been robust around the selection table.
“There’s always difference of opinion, that makes life interesting. There’s always debate about what we should do, and there was some interesting discussion.”
Backs coach Wayne Smith said he was “100 percent behind” the changes which he said would “keep us on edge”. He added he was “looking for a big performance from those guys coming in”.
But Smith said it was only natural there was some temptation to leave Smith and Nonu intact to continue to build their impressive partnership.
“They’ve played together and well in the Super 14, and at the end of the day we felt they’ve got a good combination and are playing well. But we’ve got to give these other guys a crack and now’s the time to do it.”
Up front the same logic hasn’t applied to young North Harbour Harbour second-rower Anthony Boric with the coaches admitting he was still too green to start a test at this level. That means the tight five stays intact, though Tony Woodcock is on the bench after he missed the Ireland and first England tests with a serious toe injury.
Forwards coach Steve Hansen said Thonson’s inclusion wasn’t a direct response to lineout issues from the first England test, though the Otago man will add another valuable option there.
“He’s come in because we want to see him perform over 80 minutes, or however many he gets, and we think he’s a very good player. In today’s modern world we don’t get opportunities to play guys midweek, so he gets his chance now.”
Prop John Afoa and halfback Brendon Leonard were the two players not considered for selection due to injury. Leonard remains “some time” away from a return to action.
NEW ZEALAND: 15 Leon MacDonald, 14 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 13 Richard Kahui, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Rudi Wulf, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Andy Ellis; 8 Rodney So’oialo, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Ali Willliams, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Greg Somerville, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Neemia Tialata. Reserves: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Tony Woodcock, 18 Anthony Boric, 19 Sione Lauaki, 20 Jimmy Cowan, 21 Stephen Donald, 22 Mils MuliainaTweet