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Tri-Nations Squad Leaves Henry Cornered

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media
Tri-Nations Squad Leaves Henry Cornered

By Daniel Gilhooly of NZPA

Wellington, July 3 NZPA - Nearly every All Black who flattered to deceive in forgettable rugby tests against France and Italy last month is set to go around again in the Tri-Nations.

Captain Richie McCaw, Rodney So'oialo and Sitiveni Sivivatu will make blessed returns when Henry names his 30-man squad tomorrow.

But otherwise the veteran coach has little room to move.

Injecting fresh blood from a Junior All Blacks side who have just completed their annual crushing of Pacific Nation Cup opponents carries risk.

It is difficult for players in that second-tier team to prove they are test-ready so Henry may be prepared to dip into their stocks no more than twice, possibly to pluck Hurricanes pair Jason Eaton and Hosea Gear.

A teleconference link today with Junior All Blacks coaches Colin Cooper and Ian Foster was to be the selectors' last act before signing off on their 16 forwards and 14 backs to confront Australia and South Africa.

The biggest headache to emerge from the two French tests -- and subsequent departure of the Dave Gallaher Cup -- and the uninspired defeat of Italy was a lack of test quality depth at first five-eighth.

Stephen Donald and Luke McAlister proved they both have mountains to move before they can match the deeds of injured star Daniel Carter.

Henry will name them both tomorrow but the hard part will come when he must thrust one of them into a playmaking duel with Wallabies kingpin Matt Giteau in the tournament-opener at Eden Park on July 18.

The rest of the backline largely picks itself, with Piri Weepu still the third-string No 10 and part of a promising halfback trio also comprising Brendon Leonard and Jimmy Cowan.

Isaia Toeava's surprisingly limp June efforts won't see him dropped as he provides the best cover for both Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu in the midfield.

Joe Rokocoko and Lelia Masaga should keep their wing spots, joined by the classy Sitiveni Sivivatu on return from a shoulder injury.

Gear's sharp form may also force a spot although with Toeava and fullback Cory Jane both backup wing options, another position may be propped up.

Midfielders Anthony Tuitavake and Ryan Crotty are possibilities for the 14th back spot, or young Canterbury first five-eighth Colin Slade may be immersed in the culture.

Forwards coach Steve Hansen has identified weaknesses in Eaton's aerial game but the 10-test veteran is still favoured to be included as a fourth lock behind Brad Thorn, Isaac Ross and Bryn Evans. Eaton's versatility is important, with a couple of decent hitouts at blindside flanker with the Junior All Blacks meaning he provides loose forward cover.

McCaw, So'oialo, Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read are certainties while the fifth loosie will be an openside specialist -- either the solid Tanerau Latimer or the less experienced but more dynamic George Whitelock. It would leave no room for June squad members Liam Messam and Adam Thomson, with the latter still injured.

Keven Mealamu, Andrew Hore and Aled de Malmanche are hooker shoe-ins, while it would be a surprise if the selectors look beyond the four props from the June tests, although Canterbury brothers Ben and Owen Franks are applying some heat.

With some injury clouds clearing, Henry should be able to name close to his strongest team to face Australia.

The only definite first-choice players missing are Carter and lock Ali Willaims -- admittedly two world class crocks.

The All Blacks will undergo a two-day training camp in Wellington next week before the test buildup begins in Auckland on Sunday.

Possible squad:

Mils Muliaina, Cory Jane, Joe Rokocoko, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Lelia Masaga, Hosea Gear, Isaia Toeava, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Luke McAlister, Stephen Donald, Piri Weepu, Jimmy Cowan, Brendon Leonard

Rodney So'oialo, Richie McCaw (captain), Tanerau Latimer, Kieran Read, Jerome Kaino, Jason Eaton, Isaac Ross, Bryn Evans, Brad Thorn, John Afoa, Neemia Tialata, Tony Woodcock, Wyatt Crockett, Andrew Hore, Keven Mealamu, Aled de Malmanche.


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