New Zealand v France, Auckland, June 13
Ross set for All Blacks debut
June 9, 2009
Lock Isaac Ross will make his All Blacks bow in Dunedin this weekend © Getty Images
It's the fragile All Blacks rugby side that had to be named and now coach Graham Henry is calling on his wide-eyed players to seize the moment.
That comes on Saturday at Carisbrook in the first of two outings against a French side likely to be considerably more test-hardened than Henry's initial class of '09.
Lock Isaac Ross is the only new cap in the starting 15 but there is a stop-gap feel to a side whose makeup has altered considerably over the past month thanks to a swag of injuries to first-choice options. It was inevitable that Henry would unveil a new-look loose forward trio, which features Liam Messam at No.8 in just his second test, Kieran Read in his fourth on the blindside flank and Adam Thomson his 10th in the openside jersey vacated by injured skipper Richie McCaw.
The trio, who all debuted last year, boast just six starts between them but are thrust into the spotlight thanks to the woes of McCaw, Jerome Kaino (both knees) and veteran No.8 Rodney So'oialo (neck/fatigue) - all of whom should be fit for the Tri-Nations. And with uncapped pair Tanerau Latimer and Bryn Evans holding down the flanker and lock reserve roles, it gives the "back five" of the pack a distinct air of vulnerability.
Even the front row isn't stable, with the coaches unsure whether prop Tony Woodcock has overcome a lingering virus while a new skipper lurks way back in the No.15 jersey, where Mils Muliaina is the first All Blacks fullback/captain for nearly 100 years.
Henry is used to tricky season-starting issues but indicated the pressure is tweaked up several notches this week and wasn't surprised to sense a different dynamic within the team compared to last November's tour to Hong Kong and Europe.
"There's a major difference ... if you take all those guys out of there, who have been leaders for some time, there's obviously going to be a transition period," he said. "There are some new guys coming in who haven't experienced international rugby so there's going to be some nervousness right now. In the long term, it must be good for us. These guys have just got to stand up and take the reins."
Like a chief executive announcing a board restructure, Henry explained that four of his six-strong leadership group from last year's tour were now missing and four unidentified players had stepped up to fill the void. They would all be key henchmen for Muliaina.
Seven players who started New Zealand's last test, against England at Twickenham six months ago, are retained in the starting lineup. Of the eight missing, only Saturday's reserve hooker Keven Mealamu isn't injured.
Just three starters are back from the All Blacks' last meeting with France, the 2007 World Cup quarterfinal loss in Cardiff. They are Woodcock, winger Joe Rokocoko and Muliaina, who started at centre on that fateful day. Henry wasn't afraid to put some heat on the athletic Ross, 24, whose broad range of skills began to flourish with the Crusaders this year -- the perfect complement to powerhouse Brad Thorn, who he links arms with again this week.
"He's a genuine middle of the lineout player and he's a genuine athlete," Henry said of Ross. "So he's got all the bits and pieces to develop into a top international lock. It'll take some time in the saddle to be able to do that. I think he'll learn a lot from the weekend.
"It's good that he's playing with Brad, because he's comfortable with that and Brad will steer him around the track a bit and support him well. We're excited about his potential but he's got to do the job now."
Much will be expected of Thomson on his home ground. His form started to drift by the end of last year but he bounced back with a sublime season on the blindside flank for the struggling Highlanders.
"His stats and his ability during the Super 14 was pretty special I think," Henry said. "He turned over more ball than any other New Zealand loose forward, so he has got all the skills to play seven. There's a bit of a traffic jam at six and in our humble opinion as the three selectors we thought he would be the best person to play seven after Richie."
The versatile Isaia Toeava is at centre in place of injured duo Conrad Smith and Richard Kahui while Luke McAlister, who hasn't played for the All Blacks for nearly two years, makes his return on the reserve bench. He will cover first five-eighth in the event of injury to Stephen Donald, meaning Piri Weepu only has halfback to cover off the bench.
New Zealand: Mils Muliaina (captain), Joe Rokocoko, Isaia Toeava, Ma'a Nonu, Rudi Wulf, Stephen Donald, Jimmy Cowan, Liam Messam, Adam Thomson, Kieran Read, Isaac Ross, Brad Thorn, Neemia Tialata, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: Keven Mealamu, John Afoa, Bryn Evans, Tanerau Latimer, Piri Weepu, Luke McAlister, Cory Jane.