Three new caps, a rookie skipper and the absence of an “injured” Rodney So’oialo are the features of Graham Henry’s squad of 26 for the Iveco Series named in Auckland today.
Chiefs openside flanker Tanerau Latimer, and form Crusaders pair lock Isaac Ross and prop Wyatt Crockett are the three newcomers to international rugby named in a squad that is missing a who’s who of New Zealand rugby, including regular skipper Richie McCaw and playmaking ace Daniel Carter. There had been widespread speculation that the Hurricanes captain would not be named after struggling to find his best stuff in the Super 14, but Henry confirmed the 29-year-old, 55-test forward would use the next month to get himself back into optimum physical shape before rejoining the squad for the Tri-Nations.
And coach Graham Henry revealed today that his regular No 8 So’oialo was among those not considered for selection because of neck problems.
Muliaina has played 68 tests in the black jersey but the opening international against France in Dunedin on June 13 will be the first in which he has led his country.
The group for the first three tests of the year also features, in the absence of regular leader McCaw, a new captain in the shape of in-form Chiefs skipper Mils Muliaina.
“He’s a highly respected guy within the squad, he’s got a lot of mana with the troops, and we think he’s done an outstanding job with the Chiefs this year,” said Henry of his new skip. It’s a richly deserved honour, with Muliaina’s form, respect and nous combining to make him the obvious choice in the absence of both McCaw and So’oialo.”
Muliaina was one of six Chiefs – well beaten overnight in the Super 14 final in Pretoria – to make the 26-strong squad.
“I spoke to him earlier earlier today and obviously he was a bit disappointed with the result in South Africa but was delighted and feels very privileged to be able to captain the All Blacks.
McCaw (knee) and So’oialo (neck) are part of an experienced group not considered because of injury. The Blues have the strongest representation with eight, while the Hurricanes also have six, the Crusaders four and the Highlanders two.
Other features of the squad include the selection of just two specialist wings (Joe Rokocoko and Rudi Wulf), the decision to go with three halfbacks (Jimmy Cowan, Piri Weepu and Brendon Leonard), the designation of Weepu as the official backup at No 10 and confirmation that Chief Liam Messam is the frontrunner to succeed So’oialo as the test No 8. That also includes Chiefs wing Sitiveni Sivivatu (shoulder), Blues lock Anthony Boric (toe), Crusaders halfback Andy Ellis (ribs), Crusaders hooker Corey Flynn (forearm), Hurricanes loose forward Scott Waldrom (back), as well as the France-based Daniel Carter (Achilles tendon).
Henry confirmed that Williams and Leonard had both been selected with the expectation they may not be quite right to start in Dunedin.
There was also a dramatic promotion up the rankings for Hawke’s Bay lock Bryn Evans who is the designated cover out of the Junior All Blacks for Ali Williams and could well end up in the match 22 for the Dunedin test. Williams has been struggling with an Achilles tendon problem and Leonard is shaking off a hamstring tear. He said there would be no risks taken with either player.
Henry described Williams as “pretty perky” but admitted the coaches were “not 100 percent sure” about the experienced lock who missed a large chunk of the Super 14 with his Achilles injury.
Evans and Crusaders prop Owen Franks will join the All Blacks squad in Auckland this week as training camp cover, and Henry admitted there was a strong chance Evans could find himself in the test squad to face France in Dunedin.
Later he admitted the strong likelihood was that Ross would start his first test against France in Dunedin alongside his Crusaders second-row team-mate Brad Thorn.
“Our medical staff think he’ll be right during the Iveco Series, but whether he’s right for the first test is debatable,” said the coach. . In that case, forwards coach Steve Hansen said Evans would take the bench spot. He’s very good in the lineout, at kickoffs he’s very strong, and he’s got a very good aerial game. He’s very good in the lineout, at kickoffs he’s very strong, and he’s got a very good aerial game. He’s a tidy scrummager, and a good athlete. With experience we see him having a future in the All Black jersey, so we’re comfortable bringing him in now.”
Henry made it clear So’oialo’s omission was on fitness issues alone, despite media speculation his form had contributed to the decision to stand him down.
“Rodney has not been dropped,” said Henry. “He will be selected for the Tri-Nations. Rodney has played a huge amount of rugby, and he needs some time to rehab the neck and get himself into good nick.”
Henry said Messam and Kieran Read were the contenders at No 8, and both he and Hansen appeared to give the Chiefs loose forward the inside running when they spoke of seeing him more as a back-of-the-scrum merchant than at No 6 where he appeared primarily in the Super 14.
Backs coach Wayne Smith said he saw the fullback and wing spots as being pretty much interchangeable within the squad, and confirmed that both Cory Jane and Isaia Toeava would be contenders on the wing as well as at fullback in the squad.
“We’ve tried to pick fullbacks with the pace of wingers and wingers with the skills of fullbacks,” said Smith. “Our fullbacks can all play on the wing and our wings could predominantly play fullback because they’ve got the same skill levels.”
It was those aerial and kicking skills that had, in the end, counted against Chiefs wing Lelia Masaga who had been arguably the surprise omission based on Super 14 form.
Others perhaps unlucky, or disappointed, to miss out on the All Blacks and have to settle for second-team (Junior ABs) selection, include: Sione Lauaki, Jamie Mackintosh and Anthony Tuitavake who all featured in last year’s All Blacks.
Smith said the All Blacks coaches remained enamoured of Masaga, but “we’ve gone for a special skillset for the back three. We think at international level it’s really important to take the high ball and kicking skills are critical. That’s an area of the game he’s working hard on and has just got to keep making progress on”.
Hansen said Crockett had made his big improvements this year on his “core strength” and this had enabled him to surpass Mackintosh as the backup loosehead prop. He also felt livewire Highlanders loosie Adam Thomson would strongly challenge Latimer for the No 7 jersey against France.
“We think his skillset is tailor-made for No 7,” said Hansen. “He’s played a couple of test matches already for us and we’re very happy how he went there. This season he’s been in top form… he was one of the busiest tacklers, and one of the best turnover players in the [Super 14] tournament.”
The All Blacks will have a training camp in Auckland from Wednesday to Friday this week and will assemble in Dunedin next Sunday to prepare for the June 13 test against France. After that they will play France, June 20 in Wellington, and Italy, June 27 in Christchurch.
All Blacks squad for Iveco series:
John Afoa (Auckland), Jimmy Cowan (Southland). Wyatt Crockett* (Canterbury), Stephen Donald (Waikato), Andrew Hore (Taranaki), Cory Jane (Wellington). Richard Kahui (Waikato), Jerome Kaino (Auckland), Tanerau Latimer* (Bay of Plenty), Brendon Leonard (Waikato), Keven Mealamu (Auckland), Liam Messam (Waikato), Mils Muliaina (Waikato), Ma’a Nonu (Wellington), Kieran Read (Canterbury), Josevata Rokocoko (Auckland), Isaac Ross* (Canterbury), Conrad Smith (Wellington), Adam Thomson (Otago), Brad Thorn (Canterbury), Neemia Tialata (Wellington), Isaia Toeava (Auckland), Piri Weepu (Wellington), Ali Williams (Auckland), Tony Woodcock (North Harbour), Rudi Wulf (North Harbour).* denotes new cap
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