New Zealand Rugby
All Blacks squad a head-scratcher for Henry
NZPA's Daniel Gilhooly
May 28, 2010
Henry will name his latest squad on Sunday ahead of next month's Test clashes © Getty Images
Specialists or experiments? Half-fit or primed to go?
All Blacks coach Graham Henry has more than his fair share of brain-teasers before the naming of what will be a patched-up All Blacks rugby squad on Sunday.
It would not surprise if team doctor Deb Robinson was a regular fixture at the selection table this week, with Henry and assistant coaches Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen leaning on a myriad of medical reports before confirming their 26-man group on Sunday.
Henry's admits his preferred squad has changed multiple times in recent weeks but it would still surprise if he veers far from the comfort of those who have performed at Test level. He has indicated there will be at least one new cap but he won't want a bunch of greenhorns for three tricky outings next month -- where historic unbeaten runs against the Irish and Welsh (twice) are on the line in home tests.
The most vexing position is inside centre after incumbent No.12 Ma'a Nonu joined key players to succumb to injury late in the Super 14. Henry seems set to give himself options by naming Luke McAlister, Stephen Donald and uncapped Blues No.12 Benson Stanley. Donald would also cover fly-half Daniel Carter, with the likes of Stephen Brett and Aaron Cruden still not refined enough for the Test stage.
McAlister has minimal rugby under his belt but was the best on show in the All Blacks' most recent match -- the loss to the Barbarians at Twickenham -- and produced some sparkling form of old in one of just two 80 minute appearances for the Blues, helping lay on a hat-trick for Joe Rokocoko with sublime passing against the Western Force six weeks ago.
Another lacking rugby is veteran fullback Mils Muliaina, who played just four games for the Chiefs before breaking his thumb in March. More recently, a calf niggle has set him back further.
Two seasons of attacking flair for the struggling Highlanders may yet be rewarded via a call up for fullback Israel Dagg, promoted alongside custodian certainty Cory Jane.
There is a relative glut of wing options, headed by Rokocoko and Zac Guildford while Rudi Wulf's aerial skills may see off the likes of Hosea Gear, Rene Ranger, Ben Smith, Sean Maitland and utility Colin Slade.
Henry admits scrum-half is a tight race. Jimmy Cowan's form has been flat but test pedigree may save him while the second spot is a toss up. Kahn Fotuali'i could bolt ahead of Blues livewire Alby Mathewson and tried Test trio Piri Weepu, Andy Ellis and Brendon Leonard, with his sharp efforts for the Crusaders maintaining some exemplary form with Tasman last year.
Four in-form loose forwards -- Adam Thomson, Jerome Kaino, Kieran Read and captain Richie McCaw -- will form the heart and soul of the squad. The fifth loosie shapes as a straight choice between blindside flankers Liam Messam and Victor Vito, Henry having effectively ruled out the inclusion of an openside backup to McCaw.
Messam's endeavour can't be faulted but accuracy remains an issue so an investment may be made in the jet-heeled Vito, who could be a long-term answer to South African uber-athlete Pierre Spies.
Brad Thorn and Anthony Boric should be joined by Sam Whitelock as the third lock, with 2009 test workhorse Tom Donnelly still battling an ankle problem and not due back on the playing field until June 7.
Whitelock, 21, has been a revelation for the Crusaders, his tackling technique, speed and work rate outshining big-name franchise colleagues Thorn, Chris Jack and Isaac Ross. Although not a heavily-used lineout option, Whitelock's all round performance against the Brumbies this month was among the best by any New Zealand lock this year.
The Crusaders are set to provide the bulk of the pack, including powerhouse propping brothers, Ben and Owen Franks, Ben Franks and Neemia Tialata provide valuable versatility while veteran loosehead Tony Woodcock won't be discarded despite a subdued season and an ankle niggle, probably leaving John Afoa and Wyatt Crockett out in the cold.
Hooker Keven Mealamu inherits the top hooking job from the injured Andrew Hore and will be joined by Aled de Malmanche or Corey Flynn.
Keeping to a theme, the latter decision probably rides on who is most fit.
Backs: Cory Jane, Israel Dagg, Joe Rokocoko, Zac Guildford, Rudi Wulf, Conrad Smith, Luke McAlister, Benson Stanley, Stephen Donald, Daniel Carter, Jimmy Cowan, Kahn Fotuali'i.
Forwards: Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (captain), Adam Thomson, Jerome Kaino, Victor Vito, Brad Thorn, Anthony Boric, Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks, Neemia Tialata, Ben Franks, Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu, Aled de Malmanche.