New Zealand v Italy, Christchurch, June 27
All Blacks make seven changes for Azzuri clash
June 23, 2009
New Zealand train in the shadow of AMI Stadium in Christchurch that is currently being re-developed © Getty Images
Scrum-half Leonard makes his first appearance for the All Blacks for more than a year after his 2008 season was ruined by injury. McAlister makes his first start since returning from an 18-month stint for English Premiership club Sale.
The other changes in the backline see Isaia Toeava return at centre in place of Conrad Smith while Chiefs winger Lelia Masaga will make his debut on the right wing in place of Cory Jane.
Also making his debut is Crusaders prop Wyatt Crockett, who forms part of a new-look front row. The tighthead side goes to John Afoa, with Tony Woodcock and Neemia Tialata omitted from the side which beat France 14-10 in Wellington on Saturday.
Veteran lock Ali Williams makes his first start of the season in place of Isaac Ross while there is no change to the loose forward trio from Wellington. Centre Smith and prop Tialata were both not considered for selection because of injuries. On the bench are uncapped forwards Aled de Malmanche, Owen Franks and George Whitelock.
New Zealand coach Graham Henry has warned winger Joe Rokocoko that he faces the axe if he fails to redisover his scoring touch. Rokocoko fumbled his way through the two Tests against France, to follow a substandard Super 14 campaign with the Blues.
"He wouldn't be pleased with his form. He's a proven international in the past and we're hoping he'll find the magic button and start producing it," Henry said. "At some stage he's got to perform. If there are some players who we think are better, he may lose his position."
Sitiveni Sivivatu should be available for the Tri-Nations, meaning his second cousin Rokocoko is in a tight battle with Cory Jane and possibly Masaga to keep his place. Rudi Wulf is sidelined with a shoulder injury but could be playing again next month.
Fijian-born Rokocoko burst on to the Test scene in 2003, scoring 17 tries, which remains the world record in a calendar year. He is now in a drought stretching back nearly two years, having not added to a 43-try test tally since a hat-trick against Romania during the last World Cup.
"He was a superstar," Henry said. "He's had a couple of injuries and he hasn't come back to it yet. We're just hoping he finds the `SS' again."
Rokocoko's fortunes were summed up two minute from the end of last Saturday's test when he seemed certain to score from a chip kick but the ball sprung up through his hands on the tryline.
"The second bounce of the ball, you think it would be pretty docile," Henry mused. "Just those little things aren't going well at the moment."
Henry was less harsh in his assessment of another who struggled in Wellington, first five-eighth Stephen Donald, who was unavailable this week due to a hamstring injury. McAlister could book a starting berth in the Tri-Nations with a strong outing at No.10 although Henry suggested Donald was well in the frame, saying there was little wrong with his first test performance during the 22-27 loss to France at Dunedin.
"His display was better than sound," Henry said. "I think, like everyone, he found the weather conditions at the weekend pretty demanding so he didn't play as well."
After 18 months of mostly playing in the midfield for English club Sale, McAlister faces a major challenge this week. Henry ignored the classy playmaker's intercept at Carisbrook in assessing his two efforts off the bench against France since being rushed back into national duty.
"The little cameos he's had in the first two Tests, he's played well."
Leonard's return will be closely watched after his 2008 season was destroyed by a knee injury and post-surgery complications. Henry believed he and McAlister should gel swiftly in place of the Donald-Jimmy Cowan combination which has had it detractors.
"Luke and Brendon are both good footballers who have played test matches before and played at this level so they should be reasonably comfortable with that," he said. "As long as they communicate well and live with each other for the next few days I'm sure they'll be fine."
Henry said he kept Piri Weepu on the bench as the Wellington halfback was increasingly being regarded as a specialist impact player. A split of five forwards and two backs is necessary as Tialata's absence leaves no props in the squad capable of covering both sides of the scrum, meaning Tony Woodcock and Owen Franks are both among the reserves.
New Zealand: Mils Muliaina (captain), Lelia Masaga, Isaia Toeava, Ma'a Nonu, Joe Rokocoko, Luke McAlister, Brendon Leonard, Kieran Read, Tanerau Latimer, Jerome Kaino, Ali Williams, Brad Thorn, John Afoa, Keven Mealamu, Wyatt Crockett.
Reserves: Aled de Malmanche, Tony Woodcock, Owen Franks, Isaac Ross, George Whitelock, Piri Weepu, Cory Jane.