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Frustrated Leonard Hopes To Grab One More Chance

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Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

By Mark Geenty of NZPA

London, Nov 30 NZPA - You know the rugby job description's getting ridiculous when you're reduced to passing the ball from a mass of bags and jerseys, or a tyre inner tube.

That's what training's been like for All Black Brendon Leonard and his fellow No 9s Jimmy Cowan and Andy Ellis on this tour as they get to grips with how the modern game has made life a nightmare for halfbacks.

The object of the game is to spoil an opponent's ruck ball and as giant forwards push the boundaries and interfere, the little fellas start to feel the pinch.

"We're getting under a bit of pressure at ruck time and teams are getting better and better at counter rucking the ball, and putting the attacking side's ruck ball under pressure and slowing it down," Leonard said.

"You've got to adapt and learn how to clear the ball under pressure. It's something we've been working on. Jimmy did it pretty well at the weekend, a few dive passes... it's something we've just got to adapt to and get better at."

So the old-fashioned dive pass is back in vogue, or even something previously seen as a no-no for any halfback, standing and taking a step to the side before passing.

Some innovation doesn't go astray, and with Ellis the mastermind, All Blacks trainings took on a new dimension in Europe.

The halfbacks have been spied hurling aside team kit from a large pile, then clearing the ball to try and mirror a ruck. Ellis also came up with the plan of passing the ball from an inner tube to get used to some obstructions.

"It was an off the cuff thing. Andy's got a whole lot of new ideas, passing out of tyres... we just simulate the skills we need to get rid of the ruck ball better," Leonard said.

Ellis departed for home after Sunday's 39-12 win over France to be with his pregnant wife, meaning Leonard will be favourite to get one final crack at the All Blacks' No 9 jersey against the Barbarians at Twickenham on Sunday (NZT).

There's been little other than hurling passes out of the kit pile for Leonard since he started the 19-12 win over Wales in Cardiff on November 7.

In three subsequent tests the Waikato halfback slipped down the order and wasn't required for the bench as Cowan and Ellis shared duties.

Cowan struggled to clear the ball effectively against England but was more of a factor in the faster, more open contest in Marseille, while Ellis also found it tough in his one start against a tough Italian pack.

So it's left to Leonard to show his wares one final time -- and a likely duel with Springboks maestro Fourie du Preez -- after a frustrating year.

"I'd love to go out there and have a great game but it's about not really putting that pressure on myself, just making sure I do my job for the team. From there I can start building into the game," he said.

"It's hard when you haven't played week to week, one-off games you've got to make sure you do the job right, first off."

Leonard said he was reasonably happy with his performance against Wales, but has only started two of the All Blacks' 14 tests in 2009, with two other bench appearances.

After an injury-hit early season, Leonard hasn't recaptured the blistering form which saw him debut two years ago.

He hoped he could reignite his running game at Twickenham, but that depended on how his pack went against a powerful Barbarians lineup including Springbok Victor Matfield.

Meanwhile, hooker Aled de Malmanche has been released from the squad after being summoned as cover for now-fit Corey Flynn.

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