31 May

Fit for the jersey?
by Tracey Nelson
31 May 2010

Four newcaps, the recall of Piri Weepu and several players who are marginal for match fitness are the key talking points in the 26-man All Black squad named yesterday.

To my mind the recall of Piri Weepu to international rugby is the biggest eyebrow raiser in this squad, and the selectors all but confirmed it is largely due to his goal kicking abilities rather than his running game that sees him in the squad ahead of the likes of Alby Mathewson. Despite earlier hinting that a halfback with the abilities to snipe around the fringes was what they were looking for, when the squad was unveiled yesterday it turned out that experience and perhaps a hint of conservatism was the deciding factor for picking their second halfback.

Wayne Smith was at pains to explain that both Cowan and Weepu bring a lot of test match experience to the squad and that Weepu in particular is a player who steps up at international level. Certainly he’ll need to after some fairly mediocre play in the 9 jersey for the Hurricanes in the latter weeks of the Super 14, but on a postive note Weepu’s goal kicking is sound and accurate which will be needed should the unthinkable occur and Dan Carter has to leave the field.

Aaron Cruden has been selected as back up 1st 5 to Dan Carter, and whilst he is very young and inexperienced at top level the selectors see him having the talent and character to step up. While confident he will suit the style of game they are trying to play, they are rightly erring on the side of caution and speak of needing to give him time to develop as a player. Goal kicking accuracy has been an issue for Cruden during the S14, but he has a master in Dan Carter to learn from. You cannot help but feel that under the guidance of Wayne Smith and Carter this is the best environment for Cruden to grow his game, and providing he isn’t thrust into the pivot role too early I go along with their instincts that he is an All Black 1st 5 for the future.

Benson Stanley would appear to have been on everyone’s radar save his own, and his humilty was almost too much to bear yesterday – at times it was hard to believe he really was excited about being named, and he seemed to be under the illusion it was more by default than form that he was there. Like the selectors and his fellow players, I have a lot of respect for the way Stanley plays. He is defensively strong, but has also demonstrated some good attacking play and his distribution skills are good.

Israel Dagg is rightly there on form, and again I agree with the selectors that his core skills as a fullback are sound and that he brings an exciting attacking game to the squad. Dagg continued on from his excellent provincial form and managed to be a shining light in a Highlanders side that didn’t always get to use their backline on attack. His goal kicking abilities are an added bonus.

Victor Vito is the only newcap amongst the forwards, and the selectors feel he has the required aerial skills, defence and ball running abilities they require from their loosies. I have a few reservations about Vito, but they were largely answered by Steve Hansen when he mentioned they will be working on his “work over the ball” to improve that area of his game, and that he will need to fit into the group and deliver high standard. Vito has been picked primarily as a blindside flanker/No 8, which I am happy enough with.

Sam Whitelock has been added to train with the squad as cover for Tom Donnelly who is unlikely to be fit in time for the first test against Ireland. Should Donnelly not be fit then Whitelock will be on the bench. Other players racing the clock for fitness are Richard Kahui, whom many were surprised to see named given there was talk of him requiring surgery to fix his chest injury, and Mils Muliaina who strained a calf muscle playing club rugby last weekend.

In the pack Aled de Malmanche gets the second hooking spot in the absence of Andrew Hore. Tony Woodcock and Owen Franks are specialist loosehead and tighthead props respectively, while Neemia Tialata and Ben Franks can play both propping positions. There was never any doubt Brad Thorn would be a test starting lock, and it is Anthony Boric and Tom Donnelly who join him – with Whitelock backing up. The loosies were predictable, McCaw will always start and play the full 80 so a back up opensider hasn’t been picked. That will be covered by Adam Thomson and to a lesser extent Kieran Read.

With the international season starting against Ireland there no soft start to the All Blacks’ season, so there will be plenty of work ahead for both the coaches and players when the squad assembles in Auckland on Wednesday.

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