All Blacks coach goes for solid core in selection for World Cup
WELLINGTON // Graham Henry, the All Blacks coach, opted to remain loyal to a solid core of players that have been together for at least five years when he named New Zealand's 30-man World Cup squad.
Much of the squad had been signalled before the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) president Bryan Williams read out the list of names now shouldered with the burden of expectations from a rugby-mad nation in a televised media conference from Brisbane.
Several players, including the loose forward Liam Messam and lock Jarrad Hoeata, had already returned home, having been told after last Saturday's 18-5 Tri-Nations loss to South Africa in Port Elizabeth they had not made the final cut.
"There are five or six gentleman who haven't been selected and our thoughts are with them," Henry told the media in Brisbane.
"We're close as a group and a number of them have been in our Tri Nations squad, so the last 36 hours have been challenging and our thoughts go with them."
Richie McCaw, the openside flanker, will continue to lead the side, as he has in many of the All Blacks 40 victories in 49 Tests since the last World Cup in France.
Only loose forward Victor Vito could be considered a surprise choice after he was initially overlooked for the Tri Nations, before being called up for last week's match against the Springboks, where he played 11 minutes off the bench.
The Wellington player's inclusion came at the cost of Messam, whose inability to impose himself at the breakdown against a massive South Africa pack in Port Elizabeth was his downfall
"[It was] a form thing in the finish," Henry said. "It's just that Victor has played very well throughout the year and was close to selection in the original Tri Nations squad.
"He has played very well for Wellington and he is a line-out option so that's very important, and Liam didn't quite tick all the right boxes in the end, so it's difficult."
With nine players in the squad having accumulated more than 50 Test caps and three others closing in on the milestone, Henry will be able to combine experience with youthful exuberance.
However, the coach has taken a gamble on several players returning from long-term injuries.
Outside backs Isaia Toeava and Israel Dagg, centre Richard Kahui and loose head prop Tony Woodcock all started in Port Elizabeth, having had little rugby under their belts this year.
"Their selection was on the line during that game," Henry added. "We couldn't select the side until that game was complete.
"There were some selection issues going on in that Test match and the players were all aware of that. It created a bit of anxiety you can imagine and guys were under a lot of mental pressure to perform."
Lock Anthony Boric, who is replacing Hoeata in the World Cup squad, is also coming back from a long-term foot injury and will only play a provincial game this weekend, though assistant coach Steve Hansen said they were not concerned.
"It was a no-brainer in the end," Hansen said. "We know his history.
"He has played very well for us and on the end of year tour last year he established himself as a genuine All Blacks lock and it was just a matter of making sure he was fit again and all reports are that he is, so he's come in."
The All Blacks have been drawn in Pool A with their World Cup nemesis France, as well as Canada, Tonga and Japan. They open the tournament on September 9 with their first match against Tonga.
"We're very pleased with the side," Henry said.
"We think it has got a lot of experience ... but it also has a lot of younger players who I think will give real vitality and enthusiasm and edge."
Published: August 23, 2011 04:00 AM