On the face of it, Graham Henry was in high good humour as he named his New Zealand side for tomorrow's set-to with England at Twickenham, delivering his wisecracks with a rat-a-tat rhythm that Jackie Mason himself might have admired. "A lot of people have been pressing us to play Hosea Gear," he said when asked about the Maori wing's promotion to the starting line-up. "My wife has been telling me to pick him; even my mother asked me why he wasn't in the team. Finally, I've bent to the pressure. It's a pain in the arse, this job."
It was an easy joke for the All Blacks coach to make, given that Gear is anything but a laughing matter as far as the English are concerned. (The man from Gisborne scored three tries in inspiring the Maori to a famous victory over the red-rose tourists in Napier last June, all of them jaw-dropping.) Henry was equally jolly at the prospect of Sonny Bill Williams making his Test debut at centre. "When I spoke to him while he was playing in France with Toulon, he told me he would come back to New Zealand and go after the All Black jersey only if he thought he was good enough," he said of the celebrated rugby league international. The accompanying smile ensured that the obvious follow-up question went unasked.
But as rugby teams the world over learned long ago, Henry's smile is the smile of the wolf. Like the rest of his backroom team, he was, and remains, offended and annoyed at the theory, expounded by the England defence coach Mike Ford, that southern hemisphere rugby is somehow less than the real thing. The home side may now be backtracking for all they are worth – the phrase "flipping heck" could be heard on the lips of their captain Lewis Moody yesterday – but the words have been spoken and the damage has been done.
Henry tried to make out that he had enough on his plate, without worrying about the latest Fordism. "I just bounce off the walls and try to keep going straight, especially after midnight," he said, cryptically. But he could not resist for long. "Look, it makes no difference to me what they say and I think we should move on, but I do find it ridiculous," he pronounced. "The three Tri-Nations teams are ranked one, two and three in the world, so I think they can all play a wee bit." At which point, he was called away. "Shame," he said. "I was just beginning to enjoy myself."
By contrast, the stellar outside-half Daniel Carter was entirely unfazed by the suggestion that the average try count in recent matches involving New Zealand, Australia and South Africa – up around the six mark, twice as many as a year ago – betrayed a lack of physical intensity up front and defensive application behind. "Right now," he said, "I feel we're playing the kind of rugby I loved to play when I was growing up."
Carter could surpass Jonny Wilkinson as the heaviest scorer in the history of Test rugby at some point during this four-week New Zealand tour, but the thought has barely occurred to him. "If it happens, fantastic, but it's not what drives me and it's not something I ever target," he commented. "Anyway, Jonny is still around." He was far more interested in the appearance of Williams in his orbit. Carter has long been used to drawing on the rich rugby intelligence of Conrad Smith, probably the world's most accomplished outside centre if not the most celebrated, but Smith has a minor hamstring injury that requires attention, hence the change of midfield formation.
"Sonny Bill's a real athlete, an exciting talent, and he's keen to learn," Carter said of the newcomer. "It's a big step up for anyone, but he'll go well. Together with Ma'a Nonu, he'll carry the ball and give us a lot of go-forward. But that's not all there is to a game of rugby. Even when you have people of that size and pace alongside you, it's still important to be smart and get the decoys running. You can't just give Sonny Bill the ball and expect him to do the rest."
Williams, an Aucklander who played international rugby league alongside the new England centre Shontayne Hape, is 25 now, and is therefore as much of a spring chicken as Hape is an Englishman. But late starters usually know a thing or two, and this particular one has been around: after a successful spell in Australian league with the Sydney-based Bulldogs, he switched codes and moved to the French Riviera, where he hitched up with Wilkinson.
"He was the one who gave me the confidence to do this," Williams said. "When I first went to Toulon, I was injured a lot and didn't know if I could cut it. Jonny arrived in my second year and we strung 20-odd games together. It made me think I could go back to New Zealand and prove to the people there – and to myself – that I could really play."
Henry has made two further changes to the side edged out by the Wallabies in Hong Kong six days ago. Alby Mathewson will win his third cap at scrum-half, while Sam Whitelock replaces Tom Donnelly in the engine room of the scrum.
Starting XV M Muliaina; J Rokocoko, S B Williams, M Nonu, H Gear; D Carter, A Mathewson, T Woodcock, K Mealamu, O Franks, B Thorn, S Whitelock, J Kaino, R McCaw (c), K Read.
Replacements H Elliot, B Franks, A Boric, L Messam, A Ellis, S Donald, I Toeava.
Kick-off Tomorrow 2.30pm, Twickenham.
TV Sky Sports 1.Reuse content