Hansen defends Weepu selection

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen faces a public backlash after naming scrum-half Piri Weepu in his 30-man squad for this month’s three-test series with Ireland.

Weepu has been a controversial figure in New Zealand rugby this season due to his poor displays for the Auckland Blues in the Super Rugby tournament along with his well-documented weight problems.

The 56-cap halfback has been selected ahead of Andy Ellis, who has been in excellent form for the Canterbury Crusaders, as well as teenage sensation TJ Perenara.

Hansen, however, has backed the under-fire Weepu to deliver the goods for New Zealand, highlighting his ability to goal kick and play at outhalf as key factors in his selection.

“Piri’s the incumbent All Black halfback who played extremely well during at the World Cup,” said Hansen at the team’s training base in Auckland yesterday. “Without him, we would have struggled to achieve what we achieved.”

Hansen, who has taken over the reins from Graham Henry, has also selected seven new caps in the enlarged group for the meeting with Declan Kidney’s troops.

Weepu is named alongside uncapped Highlanders scrum-half Aaron Smith, who has been widely tipped to win his first cap at Eden Park in Auckland on Saturday.

Smith, 23, has had a fantastic season with the Otago franchise, ousting All Black veteran Jimmy Cowan in the number nine shirt with his high-tempo game and lightning-quick pass.

Hansen has named three uncapped forwards from the all-conquering Chiefs’ side this season. Openside Sam Cane, giant lock Brodie Retallick and monster prop Ben Tameifuna, who tips the scales at 136kgs, have all made the cut. Crusaders lock Luck Romano is also included after a strong season for the Canterbury side.

World Cup winning forwards such as Owen Franks, Tony Woodcock, Sam Whitelock and Kieran Read are all selected, but three key men will be missing in the pack for the first test in Auckland.

Star blindside Jerome Kaino is out for the season with a shoulder injury while hooker Kevin Mealamu is due to sit the first game out with a troublesome calf. Legendary lock Brad Thorn, who helped Leinster to Heineken Cup glory, is also another notable absentee.

The other new additions include young outhalf Beauden Barrett and his Hurricanes teammate Julian Savea. Winger Savea has had a barnstorming season for the Wellington outfit with his size and playing style drawing comparisons with the great Jonah Lomu.

Richie McCaw, who has only just recently returned to competitive action, will skipper the side. The openside flanker was dogged with a foot injury throughout the World Cup tournament and played with two screws in his right metatarsal bone in order to lead his side to glory.

The All Blacks captain is feeling refreshed after his recovery period and his champing at the bit to pull the black jersey on again.

“Having that six months off to get the foot just right reminds you why you play the game.” McCaw explained. “I just love it, but the bit I love most is playing for the All Blacks.

“When you get to my age, you realise these days aren’t going to last forever so you have to make the most of minute you get.”

McCaw won his first cap against Ireland back in the autumn of 2001 during a rip-roaring 40-29 victory for New Zealand. McCaw, who incidentally was crowned man-of-the-match that day, has gone on to face Ireland a further nine times since and has been victorious on every occasion.

The Crusaders backrower was also a member of the New Zealand side which whitewashed the Lions 3-0 in 2005, but McCaw insisted he has nothing but respect for the Irish.

“I’ve played them (Ireland) many times over the years. I’ve always enjoyed the matches. They are always pretty physical and that first one (in Dublin) was a real belter of a game. That game gave me a pretty good understanding of what test rugby is all about.”

McCaw, who cited Tommy Bowe as a huge loss for Ireland, was full of praise for Sean O’Brien who won plenty of admirers in the southern hemisphere during last year’s World Cup.

“I was very impressed with O’Brien that day he played against Australia. He had a big day and I was very impressed with what I saw. If they can get him the ball, he’ll be a handful.”

The 103-test veteran expects Ireland to adopt a Leinster-style game plan in his home country for the forthcoming series.

“They’ll want to have a crack at us most definitely and with guys like Brian O’Driscoll on board, why wouldn’t you?,” he asked.

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