All Blacks: The arrival of Sonny Bill

By Wynne Gray

All Black Sonny Bill Williams (left) and All Black Coach Graham Henry after the announcement of the All Black squad last night. Photo / Sarah Ivey
All Black Sonny Bill Williams (left) and All Black Coach Graham Henry after the announcement of the All Black squad last night. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Five mid-year All Blacks have gone, Sonny Bill Williams has been anointed and others recycled for the team's tour to Hong Kong and Europe.

Hosea Gear, Daniel Braid, Hika Elliot, Andy Ellis, Stephen Donald, Andrew Hore, Isaia Toeava and Sitiveni Sivivatu have been chosen after missing selection earlier this year.

Late injuries to Israel Dagg and Piri Weepu changed some of the dynamics in the 30-strong group.

High-profile players who missed the cut were Aaron Cruden, Colin Slade, Victor Vito and Rene Ranger while the restricted touring group meant no room for impressive Canterbury centre Robbie Fruean.

His midfield partner Williams was the sole new cap in the squad, capping his limited but sparkling entry to provincial rugby, while Sivivatu will have to prove his fitness by playing two games for Waikato in the next fortnight.

"Sonny Bill has been selected on form," coach Graham Henry said. "He has played very well for Canterbury, he is a gamebreaker with huge strength and the ability to offload in the tackle.

He has a lot of untapped potential ...

"He is a very unselfish player, a great team man and offers different ways of playing the game."

Daniel Carter and Hore have been chosen without playing since their ankle and shoulder operations, but will travel with the squad which leaves for Hong Kong on Saturday.

The selectors decided to choose three hookers and three halfbacks to simulate World Cup selections and that meant room for only five loose forwards. Vito was squeezed out.

"We were looking for a specialist No 8 to back up Kieran Read and we thought [Liam] Messam was more suited to that role," coach Graham Henry said.

Messam and Gear return the All Blacks straight from featuring in the victorious Commonwealth Games sevens squad.

"This is our last chance to be together before the Rugby World Cup and we wanted to keep people like Andrew Hore involved," Henry said. "He has been a very important leader in this group, he is very close to the leaders in the team especially the captain, and he is an important part of the machine and if we didn't get him involved now it would have been a long wait."

Hore's surgeon will not give him a clearance to play until next month, but Sivivatu will play several provincial games and should be up to speed quickly.

Henry and his fellow selectors, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen debated at length whether to take three first five-eighths, but thought that such a move would be overkill.

They concluded that, with three in the touring party, one player would not get a great deal of matchplay.

"We thought we were better off making the tough choice. Colin Slade will run the cutter for the Highlanders next year so he will get a lot of gametime, Aaron Cruden will also do the same with the Canes and that will be their big opportunities.

"This was the most difficult selection," Henry said. "But Stephen Donald has really come back strongly, he has been very impressive since his return from injury.

"All the contenders played well for their provinces, but we think Donald is the best navigator, has got more authority and has obviously played superbly. It looked like the last minute of that Manawatu game [scoring a try] he wanted to make a statement.

"I felt for him because he went through a bad patch last year when we did as a team," Henry said. "But he has played the best he has ever played recently."

Henry hoped to get another 10-15 per cent improvement on the team's Tri-Nations efforts and thought Carter might be fit for the opening test of the end-of-year tour against the Wallabies in Hong Kong in a fortnight.

Picking only 30 players to take on the tour made this selection more taxing, Henry said, and players such as Jamie Mackintosh and James Broadhurst were unlucky to miss out on making the squad.

Weepu was facing a six-month absence from the sport to recover from the fracture and dislocation of his ankle in Saturday's game for Wellington against Taranaki.

All Blacks squad

Backs: Andy Ellis (Canterbury), Daniel Carter (Canterbury), Jimmy Cowan (Southland), Stephen Donald (Waikato), Hosea Gear (Wellington), Cory Jane (Wellington), Alby Mathewson (Wellington), Mils Muliaina (Waikato), Ma'a Nonu (Wellington), Joe Rokocoko (Auckland), Sitiveni Sivivatu (Waikato), Conrad Smith (Wellington), Isaia Toeava (Auckland), Sonny Bill Williams (Canterbury).

Forwards: John Afoa (Auckland), Anthony Boric (North Harbour), Daniel Braid (Auckland), Tom Donnelly (Auckland), Hikawera Elliott (Hawke's Bay), Ben Franks (Tasman), Owen Franks (Canterbury), Andrew Hore (Taranaki), Jerome Kaino (Auckland), Richie McCaw (Canterbury, captain), Keven Mealamu (Auckland), Liam Messam (Waikato), Kieran Read (Canterbury), Brad Thorn (Canterbury), Sam Whitelock (Canterbury), Tony Woodcock (North Harbour).

- NZ Herald

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