Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

All Blacks: Leg-up for Cup hopefuls

Liam Messam and Sonny Bill Williams will take on the Springboks in Port Elizabeth next weekend. Photo / Getty Images
Liam Messam and Sonny Bill Williams will take on the Springboks in Port Elizabeth next weekend. Photo / Getty Images

The All Blacks are shelving almost 500 test caps as they balance World Cup needs against their sole overseas challenge from the Springboks.

Blues hooker Keven Mealamu will captain the side in which a number of players who have been injured will get their last chance audition in Port Elizabeth next weekend before the squad for the seventh global tournament is announced.

Half the regular test side have been grounded including regular skipper Richie McCaw, fullback Mils Muliaina, five-eighths Daniel Carter and lock Brad Thorn who have nearly 330 caps between them.

Players needed for the World Cup will link up with the squad again for the August 27 test against the Wallabies in Brisbane. Others staying in New Zealand are Conrad Smith, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Kieran Read, Owen Franks, Tom Donnelly, Corey Flynn, and Ben Smith.

Those decisions mean McCaw's latest 19-test stretch as captain has been broken with Mealamu leading the side after taking them to a win against Scotland in 2008.

Others who have captained the test team since McCaw took over in 2006 have been Rodney So'oialo, Jerry Collins, Reuben Thorne and Mils Muliaina.

The All Blacks leave for South Africa today though two of the squad, Israel Dagg and Zac Guildford, have been chosen to play for Hawkes Bay against Bay of Plenty and will fly out to the Republic tomorrow.

Coach Graham Henry explained his rationale as a strategy to give some of the well-travelled players in the squad some respite while also giving the selectors a gauge on other fringe World Cup candidates.

"We think we have a strong squad going to South Africa and our expectations are high," Henry said. "We expect to play well and we expect to win.

"We are looking after players so some who have travelled a lot are not going, some of the players who haven't played a lot are playing and we will try and give them that opportunity."

If some players created selection dilemmas for the panel, Henry welcomed those knotty problems.

Dagg had not played rugby for three months after damaging his thigh muscle during the Super 15. He had played club rugby last week, an ITM Cup game today and would start against the Springboks.

"It is a big ask but he needs that opportunity and he is a great young player and if he is going to have a chance of getting in this World Cup team we have to give him that opportunity," Henry said.

Those players left at home were on individual training programmes to have them in strong condition when they linked up next with the All Blacks in Brisbane.

"They are very self-sufficient so they will be fine."

The All Black selectors had spoken to most of them before the start of the test programme against Fiji and explained their intentions.

"We did not get much of an argument," Henry said.

"Conrad Smith, for example, had not played much footy and I'm sure he would have liked to go but we didn't ask him, so we didn't have an argument. But Richard Kahui needed to play if he is going to have a chance of getting in the World Cup side."

Five-eighths Colin Slade had to run the side at some stage and this was the chance to give him that experience in a game where the Boks would be keen for revenge.

Some might see the All Black tactics as a danger for their momentum.

"I think the risk is bigger than that. I think the risk is getting to the World Cup where a lot of players have not had any experience of playing top test match rugby and get thrown into a top quarter-final or semifinal.

"That is a huge risk so I think we have to do our best to prepare for that and maybe there is a little risk now, we don't think that, but if you are looking at that you have to take it now," Henry said.

Travelling squad

Backs: Israel Dagg, Isaia Toeava, Hosea Gear, Zac Guildford, Cory Jane, Richard Kahui, Sonny Bill Williams, Ma'a Nonu, Colin Slade, Piri Weepu, Andy Ellis, Jimmy Cowan.

Forwards: Victor Vito, Adam Thomson, Liam Messam, Jerome Kaino, Sam Whitelock, Ali Williams, Jarrad Hoeata, Ben Franks, Tony Woodcock, John Afoa, Wyatt Crockett, Keven Mealamu (c), Andrew Hore.

Left at home

Mils Muliaina, Conrad Smith, Daniel Carter, Ben Smith, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, Brad Thorn, Owen Franks, Corey Flynn, Tom Donnelly.

- NZ Herald

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