Wednesday Jun 23, 2010
Expect the All Blacks to be even more test-hardened going into next year's World Cup, says coach Graham Henry after unveiling a vastly experienced tight five to face Wales.
New Zealand's big men will lumber onto Waikato Stadium for the second test boasting the most experienced front row in their test history and the second-oldest locking combination.
Henry replaced the relatively youthful Franks brothers at prop with Tony Woodcock and Neemia Tialata, hopeful their test nous and hunger to prove they are still the top dogs will pay dividends.
Likewise, provincial journeyman Tom Donnelly, 28, headed off 21-year-old Sam Whitelock to partner Brad Thorn, 35, at lock, their combined age of 63 just short of two All Blacks greats.
Colin Meads, then 35, partnered usual No 8 Brian Lochore, 30, in the 13-0 third test loss to the British and Irish Lions in Wellington in 1971 - a series which proved to be a swansong for the two pack legends.
Henry said it wasn't by chance his side were maturing as the World Cup grew closer.
"I think you have to have a nucleus of experience in the team," he said.
"You pick the best players but usually that correlates to their age. There's probably quite a strong correlation and it's an experienced side we've got going on the paddock.
"But that's not to say you don't pick a guy playing his first year of Super 14 rugby. There could be a bolter next year who could make the side. Who knows?"
Woodcock (62 tests), Tialata (42) and hooker Keven Mealamu (73) boast a combined test experience of 177 caps, pipping the celebrated front row of hooker Sean Fitzpatrick (90) and props Olo Brown (45) and Craig Dowd (36), who tallied 171 in the defeat of Australia at Dunedin in 1997.
The scrum has been a source of some concern in the first two wins of the season over Ireland and Wales, with Henry hopeful an improvement there can flow through the rest of the All Blacks' game.
"I think we're probably playing at about 70 per cent.... my expectation is that we'll play better than last week," he said of the 42-9 first test defeat of Wales in Dunedin.
"We need to start better. We had a very indifferent start, we didn't have a set piece (scrum feed or lineout throw) until after 17 minutes of the game.
"It's pretty hard to play your game if you haven't got set piece ball."
There is also experience in the backline, notably at fullback where Mils Muliana returns to match captain Richie McCaw on 83 caps after the test.
Midfielders Benson Stanley and Richard Kahui and left wing returnee Zac Guildford supply the most raw talent, something Henry will hope can be unleashed in a similar manner to the rampant second half at Carisbrook.
Wales won't name their team until Thursday, with the side undergoing training sessions before then at Hamilton Boys High School, the old stomping ground of coach Warren Gatland, a former Waikato front row stalwart.
Centre Andrew Bishop has already been ruled out with a broken bone in his hand while first five-eighth Stephen Jones is in serious doubt with a thumb injury.
Henry admitted the Welsh would suffer if veteran No 10 Jones is ruled out.
"Stephen Jones is a great kicker of the ball, he's an astute player. He's one of the leading 10s in the world... No 1 in the UK and Ireland anyway.
"He's one of the top four in the world, a very good player, so they'll miss him."
By Daniel Gilhooly