Henry maintains belief in All Black superiority

Click to follow

Heaven knows, Henry can be as superior as anyone when the going is good. He took great pleasure in tearing slices off Sir Clive Woodward after guiding his charges to a 3-0 series victory over the Lions last summer, and his waspish reaction to renewed questioning over the role of his captain, Tana Umaga, in the horrible injury suffered by the Irish centre Brian O'Driscoll in the opening 40 seconds of that rubber, indicated that he has not embarked on this Grand Slam tour in a missionary spirit.

But Henry was being straight yesterday when he talked about his emotional attachment to the team he coached, and the country in which he made his home, between 1998 and 2002. "I have some marvellous memories of being here in Wales," he said, adding that he also collected one or two scars during his four-year stint. "I think this will be a great game. I don't know about us being favourites - the Welsh have won their last eight, haven't they? They'll be a strong side, and as all their players bar one went to the last World Cup, they'll be pretty experienced, too. It shows there is a depth developing in Welsh rugby, and for an old Welshman, I think that's good."

All the same, a coach who feels able to bench a player as sensational as Richie McCaw, the Canterbury flanker and national captain-in-waiting, must feel the wind blowing at his back, rather than in his face. McCaw, who has a minor wrist injury and was under treatment last night, is not the only hot-shot replacement: the top-quality full-back Leon MacDonald and the first-choice prop Tony Woodcock are also among the bit-parters.

But by opting to start without the world's most effective loose forward, Henry has indicated that he expects this contest to be less demanding, if only marginally, than the forthcoming matches in Dublin and London. A miscalculation? The Welsh would love to think so. Even without half a dozen Lions, and regardless of the fact that they have been restricted to a mere four days' worth of meaningful preparation, they have yet to complete the orbit of the rugby world into which they were launched at the completion of their Six Nations Grand Slam last spring.

It is also true to say that their performances against the All Blacks in their own capital have been immeasurably more convincing than those in more far-flung parts of the planet.

On average, the New Zealanders win games in Cardiff by seven points. When they play Wales anywhere else - and matches have taken place in Swansea and at Wembley - their winning margin tends to be almost five times as great.

Back in 1978, Graham Mourie's side sneaked it by a point on the back of a late penalty, awarded when a shameless Andy Haden dived from a line-out in the way Greg Louganis used to dive from the Olympic 10-metre board. "Will we do that again if we have to? Put it this way: Chris Jack has brought his flippers with him," said Henry with the cheekiest of smirks.

More relevantly, last season's corresponding fixture ended 26-25 in the tourists' favour, and on that occasion, both McCaw and Woodcock were in the starting line-up, as were such luminaries as Mils Muliaina, Doug Howlett, Joe Rokocoko, Aaron Mauger and Dan Carter. "We've looked back at the tape of that game, and yes, we were lucky to win," conceded Henry.

But these New Zealanders are here as champions of the southern hemisphere, and they are chasing a Slam of their own. They should defend both their record and their honour, by a few more points than the traditional seven.

Today's Millennium Stadium teams

Wales

15 G Thomas (Toulouse, capt)

14 K Morgan (N-G Dragons)

13 M Taylor (Sale)

12 C Sweeney (Dragons)

11 S Williams (Ospreys)

10 S Jones (Clermont Auvergne)

9 M Phillips (Cardiff Blues)

1 D Jones (Ospreys)

2 M Davies (Gloucester)

3 A Jones (Ospreys)

4 B Cockbain (Ospreys)

5 R Sidoli (Blues)

6 J Thomas (Ospreys)

7 C Charvis (Newcastle)

8 M Owen (Dragons)

REPLACEMENTS: 16 R Thomas (Blues) 17 C Horsman (Worcester) 18 L Charteris (Dragons) 19 R Sowden-Taylor (Blues) 20 G Cooper (Dragons) 21 N Robinson (Blues) 22 L Byrne (Llanelli Scarlets).

New Zealand

15 M Muliaina (Auckland)

14 R Gear (Nelson Bays)

13 C Smith (Wellington)

12 T Umaga (Wellington, capt) 11 J Rokocoko (Auckland)

10 D Carter (Canterbury)

9 B Kelleher (Waikato)

1 N Tialata (Wellington)

2 A Oliver (Otago)

3 C Hayman (Otago)

4 C Jack (Canterbury)

5 J Ryan (Otago)

6 J Collins (Wellington)

7 C Masoe (Taranaki)

8 R So'oialo (Wellington)

REPLACEMENTS: 16 A Hore (Taranaki) 17 A Woodcock (N Harbour) 18 A MacDonald (Auckland) 19 R McCaw (Canterbury) 20 J Cowan (Southland) 21 M Nonu (Wellington) 22 L MacDonald (Canterbury).

REFEREE: C White (England)

KICK-OFF: 4pm (TV: Live BBC1)

Comments