Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

All Blacks: Returning stars boost options for selectors

Brad Thorn. Photo / Getty Images
Brad Thorn. Photo / Getty Images

Some reward. Half the All Black pack may be discarded for Saturday's start to the Bledisloe Cup series after belting the Boks 40-7 at the Cake Tin.

When pedigree forwards like Kieran Read, Brad Thorn, Owen Franks and Keven Mealamu are back in the frame, it seems a travesty to ignore them.

That selection conundrum faces the selectors as they mull over their strategies to evaluate players in the three tests left before the start of the World Cup.

Varying injury recovery rates and ITM Cup work for Tony Woodcock, John Afoa, Richard Kahui, Isaia Toeava and Israel Dagg suggest they will be overlooked for the first Bledisloe test at Eden Park.

Others in the extended 34-strong squad, except Read, Thorn, Franks, Mealamu, wing Hosea Gear and halfback Andy Ellis, have had some work in the tests against Fiji and the Boks. They're now all rested which suggests they have to get a run on Saturday to reacquaint themselves with the test scene.

Once that game is done, Graham Henry, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen have to trim their group to 26 for the offshore Tri-Nations tests in Port Elizabeth and Brisbane.

So how do they juggle this weekend's selection for a confident Wallaby side likely to be unchanged for the first of two encounters?

Coach Henry gave his men a 7.25 rating from the Cake Tin, but he'll need more at Eden Park. Surely he'll go to the rested forwards who have 185 test caps between them.

In the backs, he wants to use Gear who has recovered from hamstring troubles and needs to get his engine purring again and state his credentials for the congested wing selections.

"I think this will be a real test of our mentality and the ability to handle things that are quite different," said Henry.

The All Blacks claimed their bonus-point win against the Springboks, just as the Wallabies did to open their Tri-Nations campaign the week before.

Saturday night brought a real belting with some superb rugby from the All Blacks, but there was a hollow ring to it because the Boks had left 21 top players at home.

Already, though, there's an edge about this week from the renewed coaching comparisons between Henry and ex-pat Robbie Deans, to the buoyant Wallabies and expectant All Blacks.

There will be many wondering whether the Reds' triumph against the Crusaders in an epic Super 15 final will have any spinoff for this week's international.

The All Blacks are starting to hum, the Wallabies looked strong on top of the ground against the Boks. But what happens if it's dirty weather at Eden Park, and how do they both go against top-drawer opposition and different styles?

"We're up against a formidable side who did similar things [against the Boks] in Australia," Daniel Carter said.

"A win at Eden Park means we retain the Bledisloe Cup," Carter remarked. "And we have to work on other areas where we can exploit Australia."

The All Black first five-eighths hadn't played much against his dancing Australian counterpart Quade Cooper but said he was looking forward immensely to that duel.

The Wallaby side has been in camp on the Gold Coast working on a plan to become the first to win at Eden Park in 25 years.

Former skipper Nick Farr-Jones has fingered the form of the front row as the key to breaking that drought.

The All Blacks have won 11 straight against the Wallabies at Eden Park and lost to Deans' teams just twice since he took over. However they lost the last match between the sides, 26-24 in Hong Kong last season.

ALL BLACKS (likely)

15 - Mils Muliaina
14 - Cory Jane
13 - Conrad Smith
12 - Ma'a Nonu
11 - Hosea Gear
10 - Daniel Carter
9 - Piri Weepu
8 - Kieran Read
7 - Richie McCaw (c)
6 - Brad Thorn
5 - Ali Williams
4 - Jerome Kaino
3 - Owen Franks
2 - Keven Mealamu
1 - Wyatt Crockett

Reserves: Andrew Hore, Ben Franks, Sam Whitelock, Adam Thomson, Andy Ellis, Colin Slade, Sonny Bill Williams.

- NZ Herald

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