Henry rings changes for clash with minnows Portugal

AS EXPECTED, coach Graham Henry has made a number of changes to the All Black team that enjoyed a big win over Italy last Saturday for this weekend’s meeting with World Cup minnows Portugal.

Mils Muliaina is the only back who survives, and he moves from centre to full-back; in the pack, second-rows Chris Jack and Ali Williams — both of them outstanding against Italy — are again chosen, as is blindside hitman Jerry Collins, named as captain.

Otherwise, all change.

“Isaia Toeava (a centre) is on the wing, Conrad Smith comes into the centre — obviously he’s okay, came through training very well. They’ll both get some time at centre, it just means both are playing. Isaia is probably our fourth winger, plays well there,” said Henry.

A feature of Henry’s selection is that in the panel of 22 there are seven front-row players — three hookers, four props.

Unusual, to say the least.

“We’re very conscious of the need for them to get game time, to get on the field,” said Henry. “Tight forwards need more game time than anyone else — that’s my experience anyway. Our big fellas need rugby, they need to play.”

Given that so many front-rows have been named on the bench, Henry has been forced to do a bit of juggling, one result of which sees Keven Mealamu, first-choice hooker against Italy, covering for loose forward.

On the injury front, good news for the All Blacks. Smith has recovered; the other concerns were the back-up second-rows, Reuben Thorne — also withdrawn late last week, another hamstring victim — and Keith Robinson.

“We’re very pleased with the progress of both Reuben and Keith. Both are on track and will be available to play next week, according to our medical staff.

! “Everybody is fit apart from those I named, there’s no camouflage here — after four years, I’d have thought you’d know that but I guess we’re slow to learn.!”

The fact that Portugal is seen as a definite win for New Zealand gives Henry the luxury of having a look at his alternative half-back combination: Brendon Leonard at scrum-half, Evans outside him. On paper, it looks potentially lethal.

“Yeah — quick, explosive; they had a good time together in the French series. They were very interesting, and it’s certainly a handful to try and look after both. It should be exciting.”

On the apparent disparity between northern and southern hemisphere teams, Henry was in good humour.

“Don’t panic!” he advised. “I think it’s too early to tell. We’ll see how things pan out as the tournament goes on.”

New Zealand v Portugal, Lyon, Saturday: M Muliaina; I Toeava, C Smith, A Mauger, J Rokocoko; N Evans, B Leonard; N Tialata, A Hore, G Somerville, C Jack, A Williams, J Collins (capt), C Masoe, S Lauaki.

Replacements: A Oliver, T Woodcock, C Hayman, R So’oialo, K Mealamu, A Ellis, L MacDonald.

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