Halfback was the position that generated the most
vigorous debate among the All Black selectors as they picked
their team to play Wales, with Aaron Smith getting the nod but
with a clear message Piri Weepu is not far behind.
There was also discussion about lock and blindside flanker
before head coach Steve Hansen and his assistant Ian Foster
opted to pick a side that would have to be judged as being
devoid of surprises. Liam Messam retains his place at
blindside and the ball-carrying grunt of Luke Romano is
preferred to the all-round offering of Brodie Retallick.
"Piri's performance is the one we have been searching for
outside probably the Wellington game [when the All Blacks
beat Argentina 21-5]," said Hansen.
"His performance against Scotland was outstanding and, not
only did we see his experience, but we also saw him getting
to the breakdown and clearing the ball the way we would like
him to. But at the end of the day Aaron has played well all
year and we felt he could give us a good start and Piri could
come off the bench."
Hansen had been clear long before the squad left for Europe
that the tour would effectively be split into two parts -
everyone would be given game time in the first two tests with
the selection for Wales and England based primarily on form.
By and large, that is reflected in the team named to play in
Cardiff on Sunday morning (NZT) as, despite encouraging
performances from the likes of Weepu, Retallick, Victor Vito
and Hosea Gear, the men deemed to be the incumbents also
played well enough to merit holding their spots.
It would have been tough on Smith had he been demoted to the
bench. He wasn't well enough protected by the forwards in
Likewise, Romano took the game to the Scots and Messam was
industrious against a big Italian pack that needed to be
subdued and Keven Mealamu wasn't available due to a mild calf
Elsewhere, there was little need for much deliberation. The
team pretty much picks itself these days.
Hansen was also conscious of the challenge Wales present.
They haven't enjoyed the best of form since June, having lost
their past five tests, but having once coached Wales himself,
Hansen knows they have been targeting the All Black fixture.
"We know that Wales have been thinking about this game ever
since the [World Cup] semifinal last year," he said.
"I don't think they are any different to anyone else. When
you are backed into a corner you lose a bit of confidence.
Even the great sides lose a lot of confidence. We have heard
a lot about how Warren Gatland is coming back but, really,
he's been part of the preparation all the way through so I
don't see that as being a big game changer.
"But I think this is the game they have had their eye on and
perhaps they have dropped the ball because of that. Maybe
they didn't care enough about the other games, but we know
that every team that plays us really gets up for it and I
don't see Wales being any different."
New Zealand team to play Wales at the Millennium Stadium,
Cardiff, on Sunday (6.15am NZT): Israel Dagg, Cory Jane,
Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea, Daniel Carter, Aaron
Smith, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw, Liam Messam, Sam Whitelock,
Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock.
Reserves: Dane Coles, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina,
Brodie Retallick, Victor Vito, Piri Weepu, Aaron Cruden, Ben
- By Gregor Paul in Cardiff