New Zealand v Wales, Hamilton, June 26
Henry full of praise for Cruden
June 22, 2010
Veteran Mils Muliaina will be back in black against Wales this weekend © Getty Images
New Zealand coach Graham Henry insists 21-year-old Aaron Cruden is more than ready to step into Dan Carter's shoes at fly-half if injury dictates a need for such a change.
Henry couldn't speak highly enough of the Manawatu tyro having announced a side showing seven changes for Saturday's second Test clash with Wales at Waikato Stadium in Hamilton. He has been impressed by his maturity off the field, his two appearances off the bench earlier this month and his uncanny sense of how to control a rugby match and he drew a surprise comparison with All Blacks great Grant Fox.
"He's a remarkable young kid. He's only 21 and he runs the ship superbly," Henry said of Cruden. "I don't know anyone better, at his age, at running a team. I coached Grant Fox (at Auckland) for quite a long time and he's probably an equivalent at the same age. He's a very good navigator for a young person."
Henry said he was merely "hopeful" that Carter would play and add to his record haul against Wales of 27 points at Carisbrook. "He's had these situations when he's played three test matches in a row before. He tightens up," Henry said of Carter. "He thinks he got it early enough before it over-tightened at the weekend so he's hopeful but we won't know for another couple of days."
There are also clouds hanging over Tom Donnelly and Mils Muliaina, who have barely played since suffering injuries in the middle stages of the Super 14. They will be thrust into Test duty despite both having just one low level hitout each this month as preparation.
Chiefs fullback Muliaina returns for his 83rd cap despite playing just four games for the Chiefs before breaking his thumb and suffering a subsequent calf strain. He had a club hitout in Hamilton a week and a half ago. Highlanders lock Donnelly played the first five games for the Highlanders before fracturing a bone in his foot. His return to rugby was half a club game last Friday. Henry said the pair still had to prove their fitness this week.
He backed Muliaina's experience to see him through the giant step up while it was preferable Donnelly return now rather than in the white hot atmosphere of a Tri-Nations test against South Africa next month.
"Tom was one of our first-choice locks at the end of last season, he played in all of the test matches on tour and played very well," Henry said. "We wanted to get him back in the frame so he was a candidate for future selection. We want to get them right for the Tri-Nations and this is an opportunity to have a step in that direction."
There are four changes in the pack from last week, with propping brothers Ben and Owen Franks making way for the test-hardened duo Tony Woodcock and Neemia Tialata as the coaches seek to improve a creaking scrum.
"We didn't want to play the Franks boys in three test matches in a row because they're young," Henry said. "Tony Woodcock came on last week and showed he's a class act at this level. He and Neemia Tialata are the most experienced props, it's a very experienced front row."
Donnelly replaces Anthony Boric, who suffered a cheekbone fracture in the first test, while Jerome Kaino returns from a knee niggle to usurp Victor Vito on the blindside flank. In the backs, fullback Israel Dagg (concussion) and centre Conrad Smith (eye poke) were ruled out and make way for Muliaina and Richard Kahui, the latter impressive off the bench last Saturday and making his first test start for nearly 20 months.
While acknowledging his match fitness is sub-par, Donnelly will atone for that with determination on Saturday. "It'll be tough but you're wearing a black jersey and pain is only temporary isn't it? It's a matter of getting through what I can do and putting a performance together," Donnelly said. "They (coaches) are not expecting me to play for the whole 80 minutes. It's just basically going for as long and hard as I can. When they see me tire, they'll pull me off."
Henry said Zac Guildford was in need of rugby so replaced Joe Rokocoko on the left wing. An exciting figure among the reserves is uncapped Northland and Blues outside back Rene Ranger, who Henry said had more utility value than Rokocoko. Ranger, 23, shone at centre during the Super 14 with several dynamic displays and was promoted from an All Blacks standby role following the injuries to Dagg and Smith.