Graham Henry has named his first test team of 2009, and for the second consecutive year it is a radically changed squad which many say has an air of vulnerability about it.
Unlike in 2008, where a European exodus tore the heart out of the All Black team, this year injury has torn the nucleus from not only the side, but Henry’s leadership group.
The All Black coach, who will be coaching his 64th All Black match, has explained that four of his six on field leaders from last year’s Northern tour are missing, in a team that features three debutants and six players with less than 10 test matches to their credit.
All up, it is an All Black team with just 356 tests in their starting XV, the weakest New Zealand test team in many years.
To truly put this into perspective, the players missing through injury are Sitiveni Sivivatu, Dan Carter, Rodney So’oialo, Richie McCaw, Jerome Kaino, Conrad Smith, Richard Kahui, and Ali Williams.
At least six of them first choice All Blacks, and a small but elite group that equals 325 tests experience.
But most of whom—with the exception of Carter and Kahui—should be fit for the Tri Nations.
Only seven players featured in the starting XV against England last year are in the test team to play France; and only three players, Tony Woodcock, Mils Muliaina and Joe Rokocoko, featured in the corresponding clash against France in the quarter finals of the 2007 World Cup.
They will contest a French side only missing first choice captain Lionel Nallet, Morgan Parra and Imanol Harinordoquy; all ruled out prior to the original squad selection.
The first twenty two men of the squad arrived in New Zealand last week, complete except for the players in the Top 14 final featuring Perpignan and Clermont.
Those last eight are en route to New Zealand, with the exception of Aurelin Rougerie and Julien Bonnaire, who were ruled out after picking up injuries in the domestic French decider.
The team named by French boss Marc Lievremont will likely be laced with players from Stade Toulousain—the three times Heineken Cup champions—who make up nine spots of the squad, and players from Ewen McKenzie’s Stade Francais (five spots) and Biarritz and Montpellier (six).
All up, there are eight players who featured in the match day twenty two for France in the 2007 World Cup that will likely play a role in the two test series.
Thierry Dusautoir, regarded by some as the best defensive flanker in world rugby, will captain Les Bleus.
So are we looking at a repeat of history, when France famously defeated the All Blacks 2-0 in the landmark test series of 1994?
It is hard to say.
Looking through the team, the front row is experienced, and features well over 100 tests. Andrew Hore is on form New Zealand’s best rake, and in open play he is without peer.
Tony Woodcock continues to rehabilitate from an ear infection, but is still one of the premier scrummagers in world rubgy, as is Neemia Tialata, but the 130 kg prop has had a mixed 2009.
The back five of the pack has only Brad Thorn and Adam Thomson having played more than 2 test matches. Thorn’s presence as the enforcer helps, while statistically, the Otago flanker actually stole more ball than any other player in the Super 14, and was immense during the Highlanders season.
Kieran Read and Liam Messam are both tasked with massive responsibility, but they had standout seasons. While Issac Ross, Byrn Evans, and Tanerau Latimer are all uncapped, they come with a plentiful pedigree, but will need to make a clear jump in class against an abrasive French pack.
In the backline, there is solidity there despite lacking Sivivatu and Smith, both first choice starters.
Jimmy Cowan continues as first choice scrumhalf, and Stephen Donald arguably could have earned the number ten berth even if Dan Carter has played in the Super 14.
From 12 to 15 though, the All Blacks have a huge amount of class and 172 test caps.
Ma’a Nonu and Mils Muliaina, the new Captain, earn their spots on incumbency and form.
The dreadlocked centres combination with Isaia Toeava could be mouth watering, with both men multiple dimensional ball carriers and Toeava having a wonderful year at the Blues.
It will be a challenge, but the silver lining is that Henry continues to expose the second tier to international rugby, boding well for the future and 2011.
1. Tony Woodcock - 49 tests
2. Andrew Hore - 36 tests
3. Neemia Tialata – 31 tests
4. Brad Thorn – 24 tests
5. Isaac Ross - debut
6. Kieran Read – 2 tests
7. Adam Thomson - 9 tests
8. Liam Messam – 1 test
9. Jimmy Cowan – 20 tests
10. Stephen Donald – 8 tests
11. Rudi Wulf – 4 tests
12. Ma’a Nonu - 32 tests
13. Isaia Toeava - 20 tests
14. Josevata Rokocoko – 52 tests
15. Mils Muliaina (C) 68 tests
16. Keven Mealamu - 65 tests
17. John Afoa - 13 tests
18. Bryn Evans - debut
19. Tanerau Latimer - debut
20. Piri Weepu – 28 tests
21. Luke McAlister - 22 tests
22. Cory Jane – 2 tests