Kiwis abandon Mehrtens to pursue running game

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The Independent Online

New Zealand will bid for a second world title in Australia this autumn without a highly significant big-match performer who knows what it is to give England, joint favourites for the William Webb Ellis Trophy, a serious run-around on the grand occasion. And no, we are not talking about Jonah Whatsisname of Wellington. We are talking about Mr Andrew Mehrtens of Canterbury, whose absence may be profoundly detrimental to All Black chances given the fragility of their goal-kicking.

Mehrtens has had his share of problems, more off the field than on according to the New Zealand rumour mill, but he played pretty well for his province in a Ranfurly Shield match against Bay of Plenty at the weekend and, as a stand-off of unusual gifts as well as a marksman of undisputed world class, might have expected a trip across the Tasman come October. Lomu had less than no chance of making the final squad of 30, not least because of his increasingly debilitating kidney condition. Mehrtens, on the other hand, would have walked into any of the other 19 competing sides.

John Mitchell, the All Black coach, abandoned the Mehrtens option some time back, and saw no reason for second thoughts when he revealed his hand yesterday. With Carlos Spencer, Daniel Carter and the outstanding Aaron Mauger available to him, he is clearly of the opinion that his outside backs, including the frightening wing combination of Doug Howlett and Joe Rokocoko, will prosper whatever the selectorial circumstances. That may be true. But the goal-kicking is a different matter altogether - Spencer is hardly the world's best - and while this New Zealand vintage prefer to accumulate points in tries rather than penalties, there is certain to come a time when someone will be asked to put the ball between the sticks.

Mitchell was mulling over his final pick while Lomu, aware of his excess baggage status, was getting married without the knowledge of his parents for a second time. His father, who gave the Big Fella both barrels in the public prints, was rather more surprised at this turn of events than were the New Zealand rugby public at Lomu's absence from the squad. Such is the way of superstardom in a country of precious few superstars.

One uncapped player, the 23-year-old Canterbury hooker Corey Flynn, will travel to Wallaby land, at the expense of his fellow south islander, the former Test captain Anton Oliver. Mitchell has also selected the exceptional young breakaway from Auckland, Daniel Braid. The All Blacks may be scratchy in the kicking department, but in Braid, Marty Holah and Richie McCaw, they can claim three of the hottest four open-side specialists in the game. The scrap for this particular No 7 shirt will be considerably more intense than many of the pool matches.

England travelled to Marseilles for this weekend's warm-up international against France without two Wasps forwards. Will Green, the prop, pulled out for family reasons, while Simon Shaw, the lock, delayed his departure for 48 hours following the birth of his first child.

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