All Blacks shock the world by leaving out star wings
Wednesday 24 August 2011
Everyone capable of distinguishing a rugby ball from an omelette knew the All Blacks hierarchy would omit some spectacularly good wings in finalising their squad for next month's World Cup on home soil, but when the deed was done – when Graham Henry and the rest of the New Zealand coaching staff finally revealed their hand a few hours before deadline – it was still hard to believe there was a team on earth capable of ignoring players as sensational as Hosea Gear and Sitiveni Sivivatu. Their demise made Matt Giteau's rejection by the neighbouring Australians seem humdrum.
Chris Ashton, the most talked-about wing in England, will be more than happy to see the back of Gear, against whom he experienced a seriously uncomfortable half-hour or so at Twickenham last autumn. Yet Henry, utterly ruthless when it comes to selection, had questioned the Wellington player's application in the weeks before that tour and while he was made to eat at least some of his words during the course of it, a series of lukewarm performances just lately resurrected the coach's suspicions.
Sivivatu, the fastest slow-motion runner in international rugby, has had his injury problems, but he had been pushing hard for a World Cup place. In the event, the likes of Zac Guildford and Cory Jane – not to mention the exhilarating back-three strike runner Israel Dagg – beat him to the punch. "The team has been selected on current form," Henry remarked, by way of explanation.
There have been heavy fallers around the rugby-playing world, including England. Yesterday, the red-rose scrummaging coach Graham Rowntree was asked directly about the decision to drop the Wasps centre Riki Flutey from the 2003 champions' 30-man squad – and as Rowntree suffered the deep-seated pain of rejection before that victorious campaign eight years ago, he was the perfect man to respond.
"I'm probably one of the few guys in the coaching business who can actually talk about this from experience," said the cauliflower-eared prop of yore. "What should a player do when this happens? He should do what I did: go back to his club and pour all his frustration into being the best he can be, into being an asset to his team. The last thing a club needs is someone hanging around the place sulking.
"When you're left out of a World Cup squad, it's hard. Some days are better than others, mind you. In '03, I found life more palatable when Austin Healey (his Leicester clubmate) flew all the way to Australia as cover and flew back home a day later. Somehow, that made everything seem alright."
While the rest of the New Zealand squad was largely as expected – Rowntree was slightly surprised at the omission of the loose-head prop Wyatt Crockett while the late challenge of the Wellington loose forward Victor Vito cost the more familiar Liam Messam a place – no member of the England camp was looking any further than Dublin, where they meet Ireland in the last of three warm-up matches on Saturday.
"This game is definitely not a friendly," said Rowntree, still smarting from the beating his forwards suffered against the same opponents in the same city on Grand Slam day five months ago. "We have not forgotten what they did to us over there and it is fuelling our fire for this weekend. The beauty of playing a match like this so close to a World Cup is that it allows us to travel battle-hardened. We want to come off the back of it with an intense 80 minutes – and a win – under our belts." And if England fail to win? "It will put pressure on us," said Rowntree. "It won't be anything we can't handle, but I won't hide from the fact."
He also argued that the decision to take five props to New Zealand, thereby squeezing numbers elsewhere, was a practical move that should pay dividends. "When you look at the demands of the front-row positions nowadays, there's always going to be someone injured and unable to participate," he said. "With four props, you only need one to be unfit and another to start feeling unwell on the day and you're suddenly in trouble."
Meanwhile, members of the governing body in France have caused a stir ahead of the tournament by indicating that Philippe Saint-André, the former Tricolore captain and a familiar figure in Premiership coaching circles, will take over the reins of the national team from Marc Lièvremont immediately the World Cup is over.
"I learnt all this from reading the press," said Mourad Boudjellal, the owner of the Toulon club, who lured Saint-André away from Sale a couple of seasons back. "It is good news for Philippe and a source of pride for the club, but on the human side it is disappointing because even if he is confrontational sometimes, he is very professional and agreeable company." Boudjellal added that one possible replacement at Stade Felix-Mayol is the great All Black centre Tana Umaga.
Saint-André, who also coached at Gloucester, used his knowledge of the English club scene to bolster the Toulon squad with Premiership talent, including Jonny Wilkinson and Paul Sackey, both of whom played in the last World Cup final.
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