Wednesday September 16, 2009
None of the All Blacks players axed from the side to play the Wallabies here on Saturday have been blamed for the debilitating rugby defeat to South Africa in Hamilton.
"There are no scapegoats from last weekend," coach Graham Henry said after following through with a promise to overhaul his troops for the final test of the Tri Nations.
Henry had a variety of explanations for his five changes and two positional switches but none was an outright criticism of those who have been shown the door.
Four of the five dropped players - prop Owen Franks, lock Isaac Ross, flanker Jerome Kaino and injured winger Sitiveni - have missed out on the 22 completely. First five-eighth Stephen Donald is on the reserve bench.
In the case of young Canterbury forwards Franks and Ross, Henry said it was simply a case of giving them a break after the most intense couple of months of their careers.
"Owen Franks probably got a shock when he was selected for the Test team. He's played a lot of rugby and he's probably gone over the top a wee bit," Henry said.
"He just needs a bit of space and it's the same with Isaac, he's played every Test this year and we just feel he needs a wee bit of space for a wee while.
"It's nothing to do with the lineout. We just think he's played a lot of football, he's probably mentally been stretched, continually every week."
Seasoned Otago lock Tom Donnelly will make his Test debut while tighthead Neemia Tialata replaces Franks in a recall which some critics felt may never happen.
Henry said Donnelly wouldn't inherit the lineout calling duties off Ross. It had been decided No 8 Kieran Read would take that role, even if Ross had been selected.
Henry believed Tialata's fitness was better than earlier in the season, when he struggled to play more than half a test and had a succession of niggly injuries.
"We know they (Australia) have got a big scrum so we've picked Neemia because he's our best scrummager," Henry said. "We're a wee bit concerned about the amount of football he's played in recent times but we think that's the best selection. His percentage body fat has come down, which is a big positive, and I'm sure he's keen to make a point."
Henry was loathe to criticise Kaino, preferring to talk up the excellent progress of his replacement, mop-haired Otago flanker Adam Thomson who he labelled "the star of the Air NZ Cup".
As expected, Ma'a Nonu shifts into the No 12 jersey Donald wore last weekend, with Isaia Toeava injected back at centre.
Toeava's early-season Tests at centre were ordinary but he shone in the last half-hour at Hamilton.
Henry was disappointed with how Daniel Carter and Donald functioned in a twin five-eighth role but said Donald remained a "bloody good footballer".
Henry was hardly positive when asked if the Donald-Carter combination could be seen again.
"We haven't done so this time so that's a wee bit of an indication," he said.
Cory Jane makes his long-awaited return on the right wing, having not started a test since his solid outing against Australia in Auckland two months ago .
It forces the other positional shift, with Joe Rokocoko moving across to Sivivatu's left wing.
Henry accepted Rokocoko had been below his best but believed his form had gradually improved this year and had 59 Tests worth of experience in his favour.
"He's been an outstanding footballer at this level in the past and he's doing better this season than he did when he started," Henry said . "He played pretty well for Auckland at provincial level. We're just hoping he finds the right button."
The Wallabies arrived to a low-key welcome at Wellington Airport on Wednesday and coach Robbie Deans was typically muted when asked about the All Blacks' overhaul.
"It's not something we've given a lot of thought to be honest. They will have made those changes for their own reasons and they will be for good reasons," he said. "They are still an experienced group. It doesn't matter who they wheel out there, they are an experienced group of players."
Deans on Tuesday announced a team unchanged from the one who beat South Africa 21-6 in Brisbane this month.