Thursday, November 12, 2009

Raw All Blacks squad to face Italian passion
By MARC HINTON in Milan -

Remember Munster was the catchcry as the All Blacks coaches today confirmed their largely second-string lineup to take on Italy at one of the world's greatest football stadiums this weekend.

There are 12 changes, one positional switch, three test debuts and a heap of points to prove in a side that looks as raw as it does exciting, and may have its challenges in front of 80,000-odd screaming Italians on Saturday (early Sunday, NZ time).

It's a long road from Thomond Park to the San Siro, but it's one the All Blacks feel they've travelled from last November to this.

The coaches see a lot of parallels between this test against the Azzurri and last year's midweek fixture against the magnificent Munster men in Limerick. And with those come a distinct warning, considering the difficulties the New Zealanders had en route to their skin-of-the-teeth 18-16 victory

"It's going to be hugely passionate, a massive crowd," said assistant coach Wayne Smith who spent four years playing and coaching in Italy. "It's hard to explain that to the boys till you get out in the middle. But we've got to make sure it just doesn't happen all of a sudden. I think last year against Munster we got caught in the headlights a wee bit, and we can't afford for that to happen this year."

Given that these All Blacks will have wing Ben Smith, centre Tamati Ellison and first five Mike Delany all making their test debuts, that five others have logged fewer than 10 caps and that players like Anthony Boric, Liam Messam, Andy Ellis, Corey Flynn and Luke McAlister are all coming back to this level with plenty to prove, the anxieties will surely be through the roof.

"I think everybody has got a point to prove every time they play in the black jersey," said coach Graham Henry. "Liam will be very keen to make a point. He's a player of immense ability and plays exceptionally well the level below. He'll want to prove to the selectors he can play equally as well at test match level.
"Luke hasn't really found his feet since coming back from Europe, but I think he'll show on this tour that he'll get back to his best. It's important for both those people, but it's important for a lot people on Saturday."

Henry, too, felt the Munster experience would count as a salutary lesson for what can confront a "midweek" type lineup such as that being sent out this weekend.
"We thought we had them ready to play Munster last year... Once they get out there it's all on and they've never experienced that sort of intensity in rugby before. Some of them may experience that again on Saturday.
"There's no substitute for that experience - they've got to go through it to understand it."

There are four survivors from that madly passionate day in Limerick last November in the starting XV for this weekend - Cory Jane (back at fullback), Jason Eaton, Messam, and Flynn - and perhaps forewarned is forearmed as to what lies ahead at the San Siro.

Smith is expecting an atmosphere of similar intensity to that served up at the Millennium Stadium last weekend.

"That defines character, doesn't it? Can you stand up and perform under those pressures - that's what makes an All Black. We'll find out a bit about some young men, no doubt, on Saturday."

The biggest selection call, all things considered, probably came at first five where Bay of Plenty's Mike Delany got the nod over Chiefs team-mate Stephen Donald in a reversal of their Super 14 roles.

"We know what Steve can do, we've seen him in big test matches," said Henry. "We don't know what Mike can do at this level."

Henry made it clear that as the middle of the five tests on this tour, this was very much a midweek type fixture. It's the chance to see the squad members outside the regular starters and one that had been strongly signposted since the group got together.

Prop Tony Woodcock wasn't considered because of a back niggle, Jane gets his shot at fullback a week later than intended (after Sitiveni Sivivatu's suspension threw a spanner in the works of the original plan) and Luke McAlister will be the initial goalkicker.And the haka. With three contenders to lead it - Messam, Ellison and Tanerau Latimer are all chomping at the bit - that was still being decided.

NEW ZEALAND: Cory Jane, Ben Smith, Tamati Ellison, Luke McAlister, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Mike Delany, Andy Ellis; Rodney So'oialo (capt), Tanerau Latimer, Liam Messam, Anthony Boric, Tom Donnelly, Neemia Tialata, Corey Flynn, Wyatt Crockett.
Reserves: Andrew Hore, John Afoa, Jason Eaton, Richie McCaw, Jimmy Cowan, Stephen Donald, Mils Muliaina.

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