An injury cloud and threat of suspension have lifted from Tony Woodcock but the All Blacks’ preparations for Saturday’s rugby Test against Wales have still been compromised by issues affecting the front row.
Premier loosehead Woodcock’s appearance at the International Rugby Board headquarters in Dublin last night ended well when he avoided any further punishment for punching Irish hooker Rory Best during the 22-3 win at Croke Park last weekend.
Woodcock was penalised and yellow-carded so his admission of guilt at the judicial hearing was accepted.
It led All Blacks management to wonder why their most experienced prop was charged by English citing officer Peter Larter in the first place.
All Blacks head coach Graham Henry was satisfied “common sense” had prevailed but questioned why Woodcock and assistant coach Steve Hansen were delayed in Ireland if the punch was never considered a red card offence.
Woodcock and Hansen join the squad in Cardiff tomorrow, where a test 22 were to hold their only intensive training session before Saturday’s (Sunday 6.15am NZT) match against Warren Gatland’s Six Nations champions.
Although Woodcock will play his 48th test after also recovering from back spasms, the tighthead berth was still to be filled, with Neemia Tialata’s viral infection jeopardising his involvement.
He has been bracketed with John Afoa while the All Blacks did confirm one change to their reserves after back-up hooker Corey Flynn was ruled out of the remainder of the tour after fracturing his arm during the tour match against Munster in Limerick on Tuesday night.
The 27-year-old had scans when the team arrived in Cardiff yesterday after reporting discomfort to the medical staff. The 27-year-old has been replaced on the bench by Hikawera Elliot.
The Hawke’s Bay hooker joined the tour in Scotland as a replacement for Andrew Hore, who returned home after injuring an ankle four minutes into the Bledisloe Cup match against Australia in Hong Kong on November 1.
Elliot made his All Blacks debut against Munster when he replaced Flynn for the last 18 minutes.
A decision on whether cover for Mealamu and Elliot will be necessary for the tour finale against England at Twickenham next week will be made depending on how the pair emerge from the clash at Millennium Stadium.
Amid all this uncertainty Henry, predictably named a lineup close to full strength as he plotted the continuation of the All Blacks’ 55-year unbeaten record against Wales.
Centre is the only positional change from the team which comfortably accounted for the Irish.
A flaring of Conrad Smith’s historic groin strain has seen him replaced by Richard Kahui.
The switch should not adversely effect the backline’s operation given Kahui was man of the match in the Grand Slam opener in Edinburgh and might have felt aggrieved to make way for the equally-impressive Smith in Dublin.
Assistant coach Wayne Smith said choosing Ma’a Nonu’s partner in midfield was a welcome challenge for the selectors.
“There’s a real contest going on for the 13 jersey,” Smith said, expressing no doubt Kahui would slot in seamlessly again.
Joe Rokocoko, the match-winner when the All Blacks pipped Munster 18-16 on Tuesday night, makes his third start in succession as the coaches give their preferred back three another opportunity.
Meanwhile, Henry paid due deference to Wales, the team he coached for 34 tests between 1998 and 2002.
He admired the current team’s performance against South Africa a fortnight ago, fighting back from a first-half deficit to get within five of the world champions.
“They played pretty well as the game went on against South Africa,” he said.
“They play an expansive style, they play with width and they have the ability to use the ball. They can defend well, it’s pretty much the complete package really.”
He said his front-liners were looking to finesse their finishing after letting several tries go begging against Ireland.
“The guys played some pretty good football, but it could have been a bigger score if we’d been a bit more clinical. We’re hoping to see an improvement this week.”
History suggests Henry’s wish may be granted.
The All Blacks have won each of the four tests they have played against Wales at the impressive stadium since 2002.
Their last two visits have resulted in an average score of 43-7.