Gareth Jenkins has forsaken the beauty of Gavin Henson for the beast in Sonny Parker. At least, that is how it was being billed in Wales last night after the coach's surprise team selection for the ultimate Test against New Zealand on Saturday.
In truth, though, Jenkins has merely sided with form and suitability. So, Parker, a Kiwi by both birth and accent, will rightfully cap a stirring return from international retirement and so the frustrations of Henson will alas continue. The former will link up with Tom Shanklin to form a bullocking centre unit while the latter will take his place on the bench alongside another fans' darling in James Hook.
Elsewhere, the outside-half Stephen Jones will resume the captaincy duties after recovering from a knee injury that struck in the autumn series opener against Australia, while Gareth Thomas's own knee sprain has allowed in Kevin Morgan at full-back. Up front, Duncan Jones wins the nod over Gethin Jenkins for the hotly contested loose-head berth.
However, it was the comings and goings at No 12 that generated the most heat and Jenkins was unashamed in listing his reasons as he aims for Wales' first victory over the All Blacks in 53 years. "Gavin's got over the toe infection that kept him out last week against Canada but we just felt that Sonny did enough in that game and against the Pacific Islanders to warrant his inclusion," said Jenkins. "One thing we can guarantee from the All Blacks is physicality and we know they will run hard and direct in the 10, 12 and 13 channels. We have selected accordingly."
In other words, Wales have opted for the power of Parker over the hands of Henson, with Jenkins quick to confess his belief that on Saturday silky passing movements in the midfield will not have the same premium as a few hard yards there. "We need ball retention," said Jenkins. "We can't just push the ball to the wings all the time because New Zealand will eat us alive. Yes, we have a balanced back three; Mark Jones is producing great form, Shane Williams is sparkling and Kevin Morgan is elusive. But in that middle corridor we need as much experience and physicality as possible."
Parker is blessed with both, as well as with a running game that his many admirers have long claimed has far more incision and pace than the Osprey is often given credit for. Just four weeks ago, the 29-year-old was in international retirement when Jenkins came calling. "I'm glad I did come back now," said the former Auckland academy colt and New Zealand Maori international. "I don't regret what I did [retiring last year] as my head wasn't in the right place to play Test rugby. It is again now and I know what's required."
First among Parker's priorities is to atone for the defensive error against New Zealand two years ago that led to a Joe Rokocoko try which was the essential factor in Wales's agonising 26-25 defeat. "I was having nightmares about that for weeks afterwards and I still think about it now," he said. "But I've worked on a lot of things since then and I've improved. I won't be making the same mistake again."
* Luke Fitzgerald will become the youngest player to represent Ireland for almost 30 years after being named on the right wing for Sunday's autumn finale against the Pacific Islanders. The 19-year-old, who only made his senior debut for Leinster two months ago, is one of nine changes to the starting XV which swept aside Australia 21-6 last weekend. Girvan Dempsey returns at full-back in place of Geordan Murphy, while Shane Horgan takes over from Gordon D'Arcy in the centres.
Wales team v New Zealand
(at the Millennium Stadium, Saturday, kick-off 5.0pm)
K Morgan (Dragons)
M Jones (Llanelli)
T Shanklin (Cardiff)
S Parker (Ospreys)
S Williams (Ospreys)
S Jones (Llanelli, capt)
D Peel (Llanelli)
D Jones (Ospreys)
R Thomas (Cardiff)
A Jones (Ospreys)
I Gough (Dragons)
I Evans (Ospreys)
J Thomas (Ospreys)
M Williams (Cardiff)
R Jones (Ospreys)
Replacements: M Rees (Llanelli), G Jenkins (Cardiff), A W Jones (Ospreys), A Popham (Llanelli), M Phillips (Cardiff), J Hook (Ospreys), G Henson (Ospreys).Reuse content