Springboks still set the standard - Henry
June 13, 2010
All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw poses with the silverware following his side's victory © Getty Images
All Blacks coach Graham Henry still rates South Africa the benchmark team in world rugby as he prepares to further tweak his starting line-up to face Wales.
The All Blacks travelled to Dunedin today largely injury-free and set to welcome back Mils Muliaina and Richard Kahui for next Saturday's Test at Carisbrook after a 66-28 walloping of Ireland in new Plymouth.
While the All Blacks cut loose to score nine tries, and run-on debutants Israel Dagg, Benson Stanley and Ben Franks all got a big thumbs-up from Henry, the Test was over in the 15th minute when Ireland No.8 Jamie Heaslip was sent off by English referee Wayne Barnes for allegedly kneeing New Zealand captain Richie McCaw at a ruck. It was a successful night for the Tri-Nations combatants at home, with the Springboks beating France 42-17 and the Wallabies holding off a spirited England 27-17.
Henry was impressed by the Springboks' performance against the Six Nations champions. "I thought they played with a huge physicality and a lot of confidence. The French struggled to compete in the physical contest. Obviously they're not used to these laws so that made them a bit apprehensive," Henry said.
"They (Springboks) beat us three times last year. Their two Super 14 sides were in the final and they played particularly well. I think that's a fair comment (that they are the benchmark side)."
The All Blacks have two Tests against Wales in Dunedin and Hamilton before the squad are reselected for the Tri-Nations opener against the Springboks in Auckland on July 10. While Henry introduced six debutants last night, with reserves Sam Whitelock, Victor Vito and Aaron Cruden all playing at least 20 minutes, the coach was intent on giving his entire 26-man squad opportunities in the next fortnight.
It means potential starts for Whitelock, Vito, Cruden, Zac Guildford, Piri Weepu and Aled de Malmanche; and openings for props Tony Woodcock and Neemia Tialata, and flanker Adam Thomson, as well as Kahui (chest) and Muliaina (calf), who played 80 and 50 minutes, respectively, for their Hamilton club Te Rapa yesterday. Lock Tom Donnelly's ankle injury will continue to be monitored, with two-try debutant Whitelock a capable stand-in.
"We want to play some decent footy that we're proud of and we need to go up another couple of notches from last night in the next test. But we also need to give players opportunities to prove they're good enough to be here," Henry said. "There will be another squad picked for the Tri-Nations and you don't want to leave players out who haven't had an opportunity to prove themselves.
"It's common sense that these guys have got to get opportunities to play. It's easy to say 'play 15 players every week', but that doesn't solve the situation you're in."
There were some "work-ons" for the All Blacks in Dunedin, particularly the set piece, Henry said. "We didn't create a great platform yesterday; we only had three scrums in the entire game and only about two-three lineouts on attack. We got beaten on territory, we got beaten on possession but we didn't get beaten on the scoreboard so they (Wales) might have learned a lot from that."
Henry wasn't overly concerned about his side's sleepy second-half defence which coincided with him emptying his bench as they conceded four tries in all. The new law interpretations at the breakdown, which the northern hemisphere sides were playing for the first time and suited the All Blacks' style, would see more tryfests and took time to adjust to, Henry said.
"Defence is more difficult in today's game than it was last year, much more difficult. The game is a better game of football, it's faster and the ball is regenerated at the breakdown quicker and that puts pressure on defences."
The All Blacks name their team to face Wales on Tuesday, while the Warren Gatland-coached tourists will prepare in Wellington before flying to Dunedin on Thursday.