Wynne Gray on sport

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Tri-Nations' results rely on halfbacks' form

By Wynne Gray

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Piri Weepu might have pushed himself into a starting role against Australia in Melbourne on July 31. Photo / Getty Images
Piri Weepu might have pushed himself into a starting role against Australia in Melbourne on July 31. Photo / Getty Images

The compelling Tri-Nations series has become a tale of the halfbacks.

The All Blacks have seen a resurgent Piri Weepu, the Springboks have felt the pain without the injured Fourie du Preez, and the Wallabies are trusting in the repair work on Will Genia's knee and hand.

After some heavy analysis of the Super 14, All Black coach Graham Henry nominated the men in the No 9 jersey as those who would drive the team plan more than in previous seasons. They retained Jimmy Cowan and Weepu, who made their All Black debuts within a week of each other in 2004, and tweaked their job descriptions.

Highlander Cowan had been steady in a beaten team during the Super 14, while Weepu was a fluctuating Hurricanes selection.

The All Blacks went with the experienced duo and in Weepu's case cut him some slack because of his goalkicking. Both were fortunate because of the dearth of contenders.

Cowan would start, Weepu would be the closer. The selectors explained that this arrangement suited the players' temperaments and qualities.

Meanwhile, du Preez and Genia were wounded. The Springboks lost du Preez for the Tri-Nations, while Genia will return for the Wallabies' start to that campaign against the Boks in Brisbane on Saturday.

Without du Preez the Boks looked uncertain. Their talisman was missing and so was their sting.

Weepu, given his chance to start because of Cowan's injury and his average form at Eden Park, strutted a form portfolio at the Cake Tin which had been hidden for large segments of the Super 14.

That form will give the selectors plenty of thought about changing their philosophy on the starting halfback for Melbourne when the All Blacks travel across the Ditch next week.

Then again, Weepu's approaching fatherhood may decide that selection, with Alby Mathewson in the squad as cover.

Meanwhile, the Boks have rejigged their side with Ruan Pienaar moving into halfback instead of Ricky Januarie, after a year when he played five-eighths for the Sharks before signing a two-year deal with Ulster.

There are other unusual changes. Gifted No 8 Ryan Kankowski has been picked but out of position on the flank, where he replaces Francois Louw who was one of the better Bok players last week.

Gio Aplon is in for the suspended Jean de Villiers, BJ Botha starts instead of CJ van der Linde at tighthead and there are five changes to the bench.

The surprises do not stop with the Boks. Their Wallaby rivals have picked Adam Ashley-Cooper at fullback and switched James O'Connor to the wing while Benn Robinson and Nathan Sharpe return to the pack after injury.

Coach Robbie Deans said his side had no doubts about the size of their task after watching the All Blacks and Boks slug it out in two tests.

The Wallabies have lost only three of their 17 tests at Suncorp Stadium in the professional era and have beaten the Boks all five times they have met at that venue.

The All Blacks, meanwhile, have omitted Rene Ranger and Liam Messam from the 26-strong squad travelling to Melbourne.

They will join seven other squad members - John Afoa, Anthony Boric, Cruden, Israel Dagg, Corey Flynn, Benson Stanley and Victor Vito - who will play pre-season provincial games this week.

Injured All Black utility Richard Kahui may resume playing in about a month after x-rays revealed he had a small fracture in his shoulder and would not require surgery.

- NZ Herald

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