What a curious team Father Ted, aka Graham Henry, has picked for the opening match against Tonga. It all makes some sort of sense until you get to the name at number ten. Daniel Carter is a car crash waiting to happen. The Tongans will come after him in a way that no other team in New Zealand’s pool is capable of matching.
A month ago you would have said that the spine of the All Blacks team was Keven Mealamu, vying for the nomination of world’s top hooker; Kieran Read, a close second to Sergio Parisse as the world’s best eight; Piri Weepu, returned from obesity and the playmaker the All Blacks haven’t had for a while; the Dantastic, irreplaceable Mr Carter; and the ageing Mils Muliana.
That back bone is nowhere to be seen against Tonga with the exception of Carter. Maybe Henry thinks he needs the football after his poorish match against Australia, but he was the one player who I would have stood down. “Daniel, you will be playing the next six matches after this one, but take a rest today.”
A cynic might say that the inclusion of both Carter and Sonny Bill Williams in the All Blacks starting line-up is a sop to commercialism. The two biggest products on the New Zealand team are being used to sell the game. The IRB will be delighted, but Graham Henry and Wayne Smith do not look at the world like that.
Henry said: “There is real competition in a number of positions, at fullback and on the wings and other positions as well, and the selection of the starting XV reflects that. Those players selected have now been given the opportunity which is exciting and they will all look to make the most of their chance.”
Blah, blah, blah. The All Blacks press officer could have written that one. If Andrew Hore starts in the knock-out stages then I could win November’s parliamentary elections in New Zealand. I better add, barring injury to Mealamu. Hore is a shrewd footballer who knows his way around the rugby pitch, but these days he is about as fast as Steve Hansen. Now that would be a donkey derby worth seeing with a few beers.
I can see Cowan starting this one because he is a feisty, physical player who won’t mind a bit of biff from the Tongans. Israel Dagg is worth a run at full back because New Zealand are just starting to look short of pace out wide.
I can even see the point of giving Conrad Smith a rest. He has nothing to gain from this game and is far too important to risk. Henry insisted there would be none of the dreaded rotation in 2011. He said that was the lesson they had learned from 2007. And this is too strong a side upfront to accuse him of that.
But I still come back to the selection of Carter. I fear the Tongans will come after him. The best that can be said about that prospect is that Carter looked how to look after himself when he was an undersized kid. Most of his injuries tend to be muscular rather than impact injuries. He also has biffers inside and outside him to take the hits.
All of that is true. But I still think it is a gamble not worth taking in the first week of the tournament. What side would you have picked?