Carter reclaims All Blacks' No.10 shirt
August 18, 2009
Carter in action during an All Blacks training session earlier this week © Getty Images
Coach Graham Henry predictably recalled Carter at fly-half and a training injury scare hasn't stopped McAlister being named alongside him for the first time since the 2007 Rugby World Cup defeat to France.
McAlister was named at inside centre amid three changes to the All Blacks' starting line-up as Ma'a Nonu and Rodney So'oialo felt the selectors' axe for the Bledisloe Cup battle. McAlister comes in for Nonu with Kieran Read getting the nod at No.8.
That was despite McAlister sitting out nearly the entire training session at North Sydney Oval on Tuesday with injury, which appeared to be a recurrence of the back spasms which troubled him earlier in the season. Nonu ran at inside centre outside Carter for much of the session but was named on the bench to play his 22nd consecutive Test.
"There is a concern. He seemed pretty good after training so we'll just have to wait and see how he scrubs up tomorrow," said Henry who may leave a final decision as late as Thursday.
Carter and McAlister last combined in the fateful 18-20 quarter-final defeat to Les Bleus in Cardiff in 2007, before McAlister took up a two-season deal with English club Sale. After a three-month layoff due to knee surgery, he rejoined the All Blacks this year but struggled to recapture his form. His last test start was a scratchy performance at first five-eighth in the 27-6 win over Italy in June.
McAlister, with 27 test caps to his name, stated publicly on more than one occasion that No 12 was his preferred jersey.
Donald and Nonu were the five-eighths combination for the first three Tri-Nations Tests; the 22-16 win over the Wallabies in Auckland before dual defeats to the Springboks, by 19-28 in Bloemfontein and 19-31 in Durban.
Henry said Nonu's benching was "a wakeup call" after an impressive northern hemisphere tour. "He's played some high-quality rugby for a long time for the All Blacks and just over the last couple of tests he's dropped that standard... there's competition and it got through."
McAlister's return coincides with Carter's long-awaited comeback for his first Test of 2009, and 60th in all, after a lengthy Achilles tendon injury lay-off. Carter impressed in Canterbury's win over Waikato at the weekend and slotted straight back at fly-half at yesterday's training.
"(Carter) has played some outstanding rugby considering what he's come back from," added Henry. "He's been pretty special for Canterbury, and played at a higher level than we all thought he would. Luke gives us an extra kicking game, a right and left footer, so that increases our kicking ability."
Read was rewarded for his strong start to the All Blacks' season with his fifth run-on appearance of the year as So'oialo paid the price for some recent indifferent form.
The 58-Test veteran, who played 14 tests last year and captained the All Blacks in four of them - including the 19-34 defeat here a year ago - played strongly off the bench for Wellington at the weekend but hasn't had his usual impact in the black jersey.
It's the first time since 2004 So'oialo hasn't been an automatic starter. Read also offers a solid lineout option, a facet the All Blacks struggled in against the Springboks.
"He (Read) is going to be a long term All Black," commented Henry. "He's good at the lineout good at the back of the scrum, he's got a good skill level. We thought he was due," Henry said.
In the other contentious selection, winger Joe Rokocoko retained his spot for a 58th Test ahead of Cory Jane after a two-try haul for Auckland against Northland, which followed a poor South African tour. Rokocoko said at the weekend he fully expected to be dropped after his South African struggles, but Henry kept faith after the flyer's confidence-boosting match for Auckland.
Prop Owen Franks retains his spot at tighthead prop after a strong run-on debut in South Africa, amid an unchanged tight five.
With Piri Weepu (ankle) ruled out, Brendon Leonard fills the bench halfback's spot behind Jimmy Cowan, while Chiefs hooker Aled de Malmanche is set for his second test appearance off the bench behind Andrew Hore.
The All Blacks weren't surprised by the Wallabies' selections, with Adam Ashley-Cooper replacing injured skipper Stirling Mortlock at centre, James O'Connor to fullback and the abrasive Rocky Elsom returning to the blindside flank.
Henry said the two sessions to date in Sydney had given the All Blacks a chance to address the many things that went wrong in the dual losses in South Africa.
"We didn't really compete, our skill level was too low and we had a lot of turnovers, dropped a lot of ball and didn't take opportunities. I could speak for a couple of hours about it. We didn't play well enough and everybody understands that in the team, and hopefully we can turn that around."
All Blacks: Mils Muliaina, Joe Rokocoko, Conrad Smith, Luke McAlister, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Daniel Carter, Jimmy Cowan, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (captain), Jerome Kaino, Isaac Ross, Brad Thorn, Owen Franks, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: Aled de Malmanche, John Afoa, Jason Eaton, Rodney So'oialo, Brendon Leonard, Stephen Donald, Ma'a Nonu.
Joe Simpson talks to Charlie Morgan about loss, Wasps and being England's game-breaker