By WYNNE GRAY at the World Cup
Wales, the first nation to feel the try-scoring clout of Joe Rokocoko, will line up for a repeat experience on Sunday when the All Black wing makes his World Cup return.
In just eight tests, Rokocoko has already broken the record for most tries in a calendar year, scorching to 13 after starting with a double against Wales in Hamilton.
It is an extraordinary beginning for a gifted sportsman, a wing who combines pace, power and agility in a fearsome package. And he does not turn 21 until the middle of next year.
After resting a strained hamstring for two games, Rokocoko reappears in a lineup near the All Blacks' best. There is a first World Cup game for Aaron Mauger and continuations for Leon MacDonald and Ali Williams at centre and lock respectively as they cover injuries.
Daniel Braid (calf strain), Tana Umaga and Chris Jack were not considered, and Byron Kelleher should get his first action from the bench.
Coach John Mitchell suggested Wales had improved from their 55-3 mid-year loss and would deliver more pressure at the tackle and breakdowns than the All Blacks had been subjected to in this tournament.
They had greater width to their attack, were physical and had a tall lineout.
It is also the start of All Black plans to get their full arsenal going ahead of the sudden-death quarter-final against either the Springboks or Samoa the following weekend.
Although there are weapons throughout the All Blacks, the return of Rokocoko will be studied closely. He was primarily an age-group and sevens player until Mitchell included him in a national training squad in January.
Even Mitchell did not envisage the impact Rokocoko would have. He expected him to be a bit-part player in the Super 12 until injuries cut into the Blues backline.
"Firstly, we are not overly endowed with depth of New Zealand-available wings," the coach said.
"When you see somebody as quick as him, and my first experience of him was watching New Zealand Sevens training and then watching him play for New Zealand Sevens, we just thought this guy has some physical qualities that are quite outstanding.
"We thought it important to involve him in the testing in January to get some idea on the physical measurements but also to get a cut of the kid really in many ways."
Confidence Rokocoko got from a full Super 12 programme gave the national selectors belief they should elevate him to the black jersey.
"You would never inhibit him but he has carried a large load for a young fella this year and maybe the two weeks he has had off with the original hamstring injury will be good to freshen him," Mitchell added.
Rokocoko is not one to dwell on his startling try-scoring feats. He diverts the attention with the same dexterity he shows when he unleashes his trademark spinning pirouette.
"The boys have been going good, especially Mils [Muliaina], it has all paid off for him seeing all those tries with him giving the last handoffs," Rokocoko said with his constant beaming smile.
He works hard on his agility at training, he practises his spin but knows its threat is in its scarceness.
"You gotta do the right thing at the right time because there is no point spinning and the whole forward pack is coming the same way. It is kind of instinctive, you know when it is going to happen, you know when you are going to do it."
The spin was an occasional training routine for the Blues and the wing had seen many gridiron players use a similar hit and spin tactic.
It was better than a sidestep, where you kept travelling in one direction, whereas the hit and spin changed the dynamics drastically.
Rokocoko recalled being patient in the mid-year test against Wales, holding his composure and adhering to the instruction of backline coach Robbie Deans just to wait.
Eventually two tries came in the last 12 minutes of his second test - the blitzkrieg had begun.
"I have not thought about that [flood of tries] but I am over the moon about Mils' tries and it is good to get back on the field and try to score a few more," he said.By Wynne Gray Email Wynne