Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

All Blacks: Trust, experience get Weepu over line

Piri Weepu (left) with newly selected All Black Aaron Smith. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Piri Weepu (left) with newly selected All Black Aaron Smith. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Piri Weepu made the weigh-in and claimed his halfback role with the All Blacks.

His form has been patchy but his All Black history combined with the selectors' intuition and their desire to mix an experienced halfback with a rookie gave Weepu the selection lifeline for the Irish test series.

It is the selectors' prerogative and a topic which will be revisited persistently this season if there are glitches.

Halfback was the major area of public contention in the All Black selection with smaller pockets of dissension about lock Ali Williams and Zac Guildford in the 30-strong group for tests in Auckland, Christchurch and Hamilton.

Weepu's survival squeezed out Andy Ellis and delivered a debut squad selection for promising Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith.

The other new caps were Hurricanes backs Julian Savea and Beauden Barrett; Crusaders lock Luke Romano; and Chiefs forwards Sam Cane, Brodie Retallick and Ben Tameifuna who, at 140kg, must be up with the heaviest to have worn black.

Weepu's versatility, goalkicking and experience as the incumbent test halfback who helped the All Blacks out of several predicaments at the World Cup all combined to save his place.

"We acknowledge he's not in the greatest form but he's in better condition than he was at the World Cup," coach Steve Hansen said.

Weepu has shed 10kg since his weight-loss directive from the All Black selectors, shaved his beard and had a haircut, looking almost sylph-like as he wandered round the team room yesterday.

"I have got a duty to repay these coaches for having the faith in selecting me.

"I've done the hard yards in the background and now is the time to repay them," he said.

Weepu sat out the Blues' weekend match because he felt his hamstring tighten during the warm-ups but he was sure he would be fit for selection this week.

He had endured a rollercoaster last season, returning to the All Blacks after breaking his leg. He had weathered that criticism, he would deal with it again and would only listen to his loved ones and coaches, he said.

He wished he had begun this season later with the Blues, and in better shape, and felt very fortunate to be picked ahead of Ellis, who had been playing far better.

Selector Grant Fox said Weepu was someone the panel trusted and believed in and was a proven performer. "He has a natural feel for the game which we trust and an instinct for the way a game goes," Fox said.

Smith cleared the ball with his snappy flick pass and that gave his backs some precious extra time. He also varied his pass with a more sympathetic delivery to forwards who were travelling into contact.

The former apprentice hairdresser played for the NZ Maori side which beat the Irish when they toured two years ago.

"I had put a lot of work in and when I was told I was so buzzy, it has happened so fast," Smith said.

"It's still kicking in now, rubbing shoulders with the guys I've looked up to since I was younger so it's still very buzzy to wear this top and have this emblem on your chest.

"I'm pretty proud and hope to wear it a bit more."

Smith's goal this year was to start regularly for the Highlanders in his duel with World Cup halfback Jimmy Cowan.

"I had a fight on my hands each week with the Highlanders and it didn't kick in until I got to those camps and was thinking maybe I could get a shot here."

Smith's pass is a feature of his play and he has worked hard on strengthening his wrists for his crisp delivery. His father taught him, told him to perfect his delivery to both sides, and at Feilding High School the young halfback got lessons from former Springbok halfback Joggie Viljoen.

"My pass went up from there and I could feel the confidence and accuracy I got from it," he said.

Smith has worked hard on toughening his core abdomen where he gets the power to generate his unique delivery. He is also conscious he has to vary the pace of his pass depending on his targets and the space or contact his teammates are searching for.

The 23-year-old was not a great student but he reckoned he clocked an A+ in PE and "always gave that stuff full noise" while his parents were hugely supportive.

He was energetic but small, and had to improve his defence and learn ways of coping with the behemoths who infest the game close to where he plies his trade.

Hansen felt the All Blacks were in great shape at their training camps. The selectors were able to gauge their mental state and to see what goals they had set.

"They are experienced, passionate and motivated," he said.

He felt the squad was a useful blend of those who had performed in the past with distinction and those with the raw talent for the future.

- NZ Herald

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