Henry quick to stamp his authority on All Blacks

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The Independent Online

The last time a European nation appeared at the harbour-front stadium known as the Cake Tin, the occasion could hardly have been more portentous. Almost exactly a year ago, a half-baked New Zealand team let slip the first indication that they might not win the 2003 World Cup, while a group of England players so rock-hard you could break your teeth on them laid the foundations for victory in that very tournament. Today, without an All Black or a white-shirted operative in sight, the omens are back in town.

The last time a European nation appeared at the harbour-front stadium known as the Cake Tin, the occasion could hardly have been more portentous. Almost exactly a year ago, a half-baked New Zealand team let slip the first indication that they might not win the 2003 World Cup, while a group of England players so rock-hard you could break your teeth on them laid the foundations for victory in that very tournament. Today, without an All Black or a white-shirted operative in sight, the omens are back in town.

If Scotland, who have not won an international match since Matt Williams succeeded Ian McGeechan as coach some seven months ago, come badly unstuck against Semo Sititi's explosive Samoans in their next match, the subject of Williams' future will be raised. Not by the Scottish Rugby Union, who head-hunted the Australian and show every sign of sticking to him like glue, but by virtually everyone else. Whitewashed in the Six Nations' Championship, beaten by the Barbarians and now contemplating the prospect of two meetings with the Wallabies over the next fortnight, the tourists need a result the way a drowning man needs air.

Yet for all their travails and traumas, the Scots have not registered so much as a blip on the rugby consciousness in New Zealand's capital city. The talk around the windswept bluffs and headlands is entirely parochial, driven by the decision of Graham Henry's new All Black regime to drop a captain, recall a legend and review the very basics of a silver-ferned game exposed in its fragility by the likes of England and Australia last year.

With England scheduled to arrive today for a two-Test rubber, Henry can expect a re-examination of the coaching credentials that persuaded both Wales and the Lions to invest in his services. The first meeting in Dunedin in eight days' time has been sold out for weeks; the remaining 13,500 tickets for the second match, at the 45,000-capacity Eden Park in Auckland on 19 June, were purchased in 90 minutes on Wednesday. Clive Woodward's team may be world champions, but the New Zealand public anticipates, nay assumes, a series victory.

Some 20,000 people watched this week's Test trial, at which Henry was joined not only by another former Wales coach, Steve Hansen, and Wayne Smith, but by a number of advisors from the recent playing past, including the full-back Shane Howarth. Wounded by 16 years of failure on the World Cup front, the All Blacks are throwing the kitchen sink at this.

The upshot? An unceremonious heave-ho for the Canterbury flanker Reuben Thorne, who led the side in the last World Cup, and "not wanted" stickers slapped on the foreheads of four of Thorne's colleagues in Australia - the wing Caleb Ralph, the prop Carl Hoeft and the locks Ali Williams and Brad Thorn. With several members of that squad not even invited to the trial, and others struggling with injury, no fewer than 16 of the 31 players who crossed the Tasman Sea in pursuit of the Webb Ellis Cup are out of the picture.

Henry was characteristically brutal on the subject of the former captain. Having credited Thorne for accepting the decision "with dignity", the coach said: "Reuben needed to play out of his skin to keep his place, and he didn't." Happily, he was less sulphuric on the subject of Andrew Mehrtens, one of the outstanding outside-halves of his generation and suddenly back in the frame after months of professional and personal anguish. Carlos Spencer of Auckland is favoured to retain the No 10 jersey - but Mehrtens' inclusion in a 26-man party suggests promotion sooner rather than later.

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