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Carter Problem Proves Most Vexing

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media
Carter Problem Proves Most Vexing

Wellington, July 14 NZPA - Almost to the second, a solemn-looking Luke McAlister walked into the Christchurch interview room just as Australian Matt Giteau was crossing for his match-defining try against France in Sydney.

The imagery wasn't lost on a couple of journalists watching the Wallabies-France rugby test on TV as they waited for McAlister to arrive and explain his performance that night in New Zealand's limp defeat of Italy.

And therein lies the biggest reason to be concerned if you are a New Zealand supporter heading into the Tri-Nations.

Australia have the brilliance of playmaker Giteau, South Africa have a settled team of heavyweights while New Zealand still have a chunk of players that have dominated this tournament under coach Graham Henry but a distinctly unsettled feel about them.

No more so at first five-eighth, where Daniel Carter's absence leaves a gaping hole in armour that the Wallabies and Springboks haven't consistently pierced since 2003 -- when South Africa won the Tri-Nations courtesy of an extra bonus point.

That was the only blip for the All Blacks, who have otherwise won the previous six editions of the annual slugfest of three southern super powers.

Henry has overseen the last four but, crucially, all have had arguably the world's premier player running the show in No 10.

Replacing Carter is a heinous task for anyone and last month's disjointed efforts against France and Italy were notable for McAlister and Stephen Donald's inability to clasp control of a test against belligerent opponents.

The Wallabies will be much more than belligerent when the tournament kicks off at Eden Park on Saturday, with Robbie Deans moulding a classy team nicely early in his second term as coach.

Henry will again lean heavily on the return of captain Richie McCaw for his "lead from the front" qualities, along with loose forward lieutenant Rodney So'oialo.

The tight five has a familiar feel although injured veteran Ali Williams will be sorely missed.

In his place is a player still finding his way in the dark arts of test forward play but bristling with attacking x-factor in Isaac Ross.

If the rest of the pack can do the hard yards, Ross's uncanny running and passing could be a feature of the next two months.

First five-eighth aside, the All Blacks have match-winning quality scattered through their backline.

Winger Sitiveni Sivivatu reunites the old firm back three alongside Joe Rokocoko and fullback Mils Muliaina, who may be quietly pleased to have shed the captaincy thrust upon him last month.

Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith form a formidable yin and yang midfield while Brendon Leonard and Jimmy Cowan will duel hard for the starting halfback role, backed up by designated impact player Piri Weepu.

Henry doesn't have long to get the combinations firing, with Saturday's test immediately followed by successive tests in South Africa.

If the 63-year-old can emerge with a fifth Tri-Nations crown and have his team end a seventh straight season as holders of the Bledisloe Cup, it could well be his greatest triumph yet.

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