Henry hopeful Kiwi gamble will pay off

WHILE no-one is predicting an Ireland win today, All Blacks coach Graham Henry yesterday admitted his experimental selection leaves the tourists vulnerable.

While sprinkled with seasoned stars like Richie McCaw, Aaron Mauger, Doug Howlett and, of course, Keven Mealamu, Henry’s selection is manifestly shy on experience in some areas.

Prop John Afoa and lock Jason Eaton slot in for their international debuts while No 8 Mose Tuiali’i, scrum-half Piri Weepu and out-half Nick Evans can muster only 14 caps between them.

“We’ve come with an objective in mind and that’s been well talked about now. We have to go through the process of making sure we get that objective together and achieve the goals of the tour. This is part of that,” said Henry.

“You don’t pick your top team every week and that must lead to some vulnerability, but we think that’s a risk worth taking. It’s not the strongest team we can put out but we can only know how good these guys are under these conditions by playing them.”

New Zealand’s dismal World Cup record has shaped Henry’s ambition of having two quality options for each position and the All Blacks coach believes experimentation is crucial with the next tournament just two years away.

“Naming so many changes is a departure from tradition - I don’t think it’s happened before,” he said.

“I was talking to (All Black legend) Brian Lochore the other day - in eight years he played 26 Test matches. This team will have played 23 Tests in the last two years. The landscape has changed considerably.

“We no longer play provincial sides on tour, just Test teams. We have to make sure we have players ready to play at that level and exposing them to Test rugby is the only way to do that.

“If you try and rely on just 22 then you’re going to fall over which is what has happened to New Zealand rugby for the last 18 years.

“Some people, and I understand where they are coming from, think we’re devaluing the jersey. But that’s the last thing we’re doing. We’re just being realistic.”

Though Henry’s selection represents a gamble, it is a calculated one. The absence of some of Ireland’s marquee names has greatly reduced the danger posed by the hosts and Henry is hardly sticking his neck out with most of his choices.

Eaton is the only one making the jump to international rugby without the benefit of a grounding in Super 12. Novices these boys ain’t.

“The Super 14 and the Super 12 of the past has been a very good learning ground for rugby players coming into international rugby,” said Henry. “I know people on this part of the world sometimes wonder about the validity of that competition but it is a very good quality competition with top quality players.

“That’s a very good breeding ground for players but, in saying that, I don’t think you can ever learn until you play top-class international rugby what it’s all about so, it is a big step up.”

Henry believes that the elements will dictate the ebb and flow of the game.

“Climatic conditions are going to have a huge affect. It’s going to be a game of two halves. You’re going to play differently going one way than the other.

“We’ve got to be mindful of that and be sure that our tactics are conducive to playing well in each half. That will require some thought because it’s going to be windy.”

In conditions like that, minimising mistakes will be of even greater importance. Last week in Cardiff, Wales contributed to their own downfall by turning over the ball and the All Blacks wreaked consequent havoc.

Ireland have been warned but can New Zealand possibly hope to benefit from so many turnovers again?

“I think a lot of it came from pressure we put on their defence,” said today’s captain McCaw. “Obviously we turned a little bit of ball over too but our defence last week created a lot of opportunities and I think we scored a couple of tries form turnovers.

“That’s often the time when you can punish teams, when you get those turnovers. Test matches are all about building pressure and making teams make mistakes. That’s what happened last week. Hopefully, tomorrow’s going to be no different.”

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