Air New Zealand Cup
All Blacks prepare for domestic duty
August 26, 2009
Centre Ma'a Nonu scored a vital try for his country against the Wallabies last weekend © Getty Images
Centre Ma'a Nonu is determined to cement his claims to the All Blacks' No.12 shirt when he returns to provincial colours this weekend.
New Zealand grabbed a Tri-Nations lifeline with a narrow 19-18 victory over Australia last weekend - with Nonu crossing for the game's only try. But the defending champions now have a three-week break before their next game against the Springboks in Hamilton on September 12.
New Zealand coach Graham Henry is keen for his players to get some game-time under the belts after some poor performances in the past month and has released 11 players - including Richie McCaw, Brad Thorn and Nonu - for one match and a further dozen who are available for the next two games in the Air New Zealand Cup.
For the Wellington (Nonu, Tamati Ellison, Hosea Gear, Cory Jane, Rodney So'oialo, Neemia Tialata and Piri Weepu) and Canterbury contingents (McCaw, Thorn and Wyatt Crockett) the timing could not have been sweeter with the prized Ranfurly Shield on the line at Westpac Stadium on Saturday.
And, given Wellington have come through two tough Shield defences in the past month without their key All Blacks, Nonu says the heat will be on to perform.
"There's always pressure especially being an All Black," he said. "When the All Blacks play for their provincial teams everybody expects big things and at the end of the day that's what we're there for. We're there to deliver so there is no hiding."
Piri Weepu is not expected to feature for Wellington as he continues to recover from an ankle injury and Ellison is also in doubt now after suffering a calf injury in training today. But for players like So'oialo, who found himself dropped to the bench for the All Blacks Test in Sydney, and the under-used Jane, the game is a chance to press their claims for a place in the starting line-up against the Springboks.
"Anyone who gets dropped from the All Blacks gets frustrated. Rodney has played 50-odd Test matches and I think this is the sort of game he needs and wants to show certain coaches that he's still got the goods," said Lions boss Jamie Joseph.
Joseph displeased Henry earlier this month by not playing his contingent of All Blacks released for provincial duty, choosing instead to minimise disruption to his young Wellington squad in the build-up to last weekend's Shield defence against Auckland.
He added: "You get guys like Cory who haven't played for a long time and clearly want to be a part of it and really excited just to play rugby. Ma'a had a smile on his face which is a good sign for me."
So'oialo will not get a chance to lock horns with Kieran Read, who took his spot at the back of the scrum in Sydney, as the Canterbury number eight is out with a sore knee. Daniel Carter is nursing a sore calf which could also keep him out, but McCaw and Thorn have indicated a desire to play.
Elsewhere, fly-half Stephen Donald, hooker Aled de Malmanche and scrum-half Brendon Leonard look set to turn out for Waikato in their game against Counties-Manukau. Wing Sitiveni Sivivatu is on family leave in Fiji this week but should be available for the clash with Hawke's Bay next week.
Waikato have had a horror start to the season, winning just one of their first four games to leave them languishing at the bottom of the Air New Zealand Cup table and Donald is keen to help turn that around.
"The body's fine and the head and the heart can't wait to play for Waikato. You take a big interest in what's been going on back here and while it's not frustrating because I haven't been part of it, I feel for the boys more than anything," he told the Waikato Times.
"They've had their tails kicked a little bit and after watching them and knowing what they're going through you hurt for them. We can't afford to drop another one at this stage and there's no hiding from it. This Counties game is a must-win and we have got to go up and do the job."
Other All Blacks likely to be in action this weekend are Joe Rokocoko, John Afoa (Auckland), Tanerau Latimer (Bay of Plenty), Andrew Hore and Jason Eaton (Taranaki).