Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Henry's best Rugby World Cup side... for this test

Piri Weepu gets the nod as starting halfback against France tomorrow night. Photo / Getty Images
Piri Weepu gets the nod as starting halfback against France tomorrow night. Photo / Getty Images

Drum roll please. Here it is folks, the best All Black side ... for this test.

Canny coach Graham Henry was not about to gnaw at any baited questions. His dozen years of international experience have taught him to leave some wriggle room in his answers. He was unshakeable.

This was the best combination to play France on Saturday at Eden Park. No more, no less.

Features are the return of Richie McCaw to lead the side into his 100th test, Israel Dagg claiming the fullback duties, Piri Weepu being the preferred halfback and talisman five-eighths Daniel Carter on duty again after a niggling back injury.

All those selections were anticipated but the unusual choices are on the bench.

Locks Ali Williams and Anthony Boric have both been picked but no loose forward, Colin Slade is the specialist five-eighths replacement and cover for the outside backs with Sonny Bill Williams, who had a chance to pit himself against high-calibre rivals.

Slade needed more games, Henry said. He had a great deal of talent and was putting pressure on himself because of limited chances after suffering two broken jaws.

The eight World Cup squad players who missed the cut for this test are 98-test veteran Mils Muliaina, Isaia Toeava, Zac Guildford and Jimmy Cowan in the backs, the injured Kieran Read, Victor Vito, John Afoa and Corey Flynn in the pack.

Breaking those decisions to them was awkward. Some of them were long-term All Blacks, all wanted to play and the conversations had not been easy.

Muliaina was fit and available. He had missed out on current form but that appraisal could change.

"It is difficult for Mils as you can appreciate," Henry said.

"He has been a high quality player for a long time for the All Blacks, and so it is a difficult selection for him but he will get an opportunity and he is the type of character who will value that opportunity and show his ability."

His fullback tenure had created a long emotional discussion among the panel. They were aware of his huge contribution to the All Blacks and hoped he would also reach 100 caps.

"We have a lot of respect for the guy who has played 98 test matches and I've been involved in most of those 98 test matches, but at the end of the day we have to go with what we feel is the best team for this particular game and that's why we have gone with Israel.

"I think our job is to make sure we do the best every week that we can and hopefully that fits into the big picture.

"No doubt we would want that to happen, if at all possible, but our first decision is [that] the team comes first and the first guy to say that's the right way would be Mils himself because he's that sort of person, but hopefully we can do both."

Weepu had prepared well and was a different halfback from the one who returned from serious injury just a few months ago.

His selection, with Andy Ellis on the bench, means Jimmy Cowan remains on 49 caps.

Henry predicted another strong challenge from France who had picked a side with about 640 caps and had a history of making World Cup life awkward for the All Blacks.

The Tricolores had plenty of size, they brought a physically mature pack and a talented set of backs. The All Blacks focus would be on establishing their style, not targeting novice five-eighths Morgan Parra.

Eden Park, 8.30pm tomorrow

Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)

Israel Dagg
Cory Jane
Conrad Smith
Ma'a Nonu
Richard Kahui
Dan Carter
Piri Weepu
Adam Thomson
Richie McCaw (c)
Jerome Kaino
Sam Whitelock
Brad Thorn
Owen Franks
Keven Mealamu
Tony Woodcock
Reserves: Andrew Hore, Ben Franks, Ali Williams, Anthony Boric, Andy Ellis, Colin Slade, Sonny Bill Williams.

Damien Traille
Vincent Clerc
Aurelien Rougerie
Maxime Mermoz
Maxime Medard
Morgan Parra
Dimitri Yachvili
Louis Picamoles
Julien Bonnaire
T. Dusautoir (c)
Lionel Nallet
Pascal Pape
Luc Ducalcon
Dimitri Szarzewski
JB Poux
Reserves: William Servat, Fabien Barcella, Julien Pierre, Imanol Harinordoquy, Francois Trinh-Duc, Fabrice Estebanez, Cedric Heymans

- NZ Herald

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