Graham Henry sets up fullback 'dogfight' for cup
It was the most honest response from the All Blacks camp all week. And possibly the most disconcerting. Asked if Israel Dagg was now his No 1 fullback, Graham Henry looked all of his 65 years as he paused a second or two before replying: "We are not sure who that is, to be frank."
Hmmm. It's not like backline selections haven't exactly bitten the All Blacks on their backsides at recent World Cups, mostly in midfield. Remember Mils Muliaina playing out of position in 2007, ditto Leon MacDonald in 2003 and ditto Christian Cullen in 1999?
In this instance it appears less a possibility of picking the wrong guy for the assignment, as deciding which of two very strong candidates to go with, but it has to be concerning that with the World Cup upon us, Henry still hasn't nutted out the makeup of his premier back three. He's also admitted to uncertainties around No 9 and plenty of "competition" in the second row and midfield.
Yesterday Henry named Dagg - at Mils Muliaina's expense -- as his fullback to face Tonga in tomorrow night's tournament opener, teaming him with Richard Kahui and Isaia Toeava in an entirely rejigged back three on the back of the Brisbane stumble. He has also found space for the polarising Sonny Bill Williams, with Ma'a Nonu moving out a spot to form the most muscular of midfields.
But the fact that the coach has gone with a heavily experimental backline rather clouds the significance of the selection for what should be an interesting pipe-opener. With Tonga's vast Auckland population rallying round their men, everyone's anticipating a fiery challenge - starting with the Sipi Tau, and extending into the real affray.
What to make then of this selection, with Keven Mealamu, Conrad Smith, Piri Weepu, Cory Jane and Muliaina all judged surplus to starting requirements? Traditionally the All Blacks like to open up with their top lineup, but here they may just have put the cart before the horse, and got their experimenting in early.
That's why Henry asked us not to read too much into some of his selections.
Andrew Hore starts at hooker with Mealamu rested altogether, Ali Williams comes in at lock with Sam Whitelock the designated loose forward cover on the bench, Jerome Kaino is back at No 6 (for the injured Adam Thomson); and in the backs everyone bar Dan Carter and Nonu is new.
Henry said Dagg and Muliaina were "competing for the opportunity" of being that No.1 fullback, and the Hawke's Bay wunderkind just happened to get first crack.
"Nobody is ahead," said Henry. "Israel has done something remarkable to overcome a major leg injury and play like he did in South Africa. We have got a huge amount of respect for the boy and what he has done.
"But that was a one-off and now he knows he is up for potential selection in the top team. That brings extra pressure and how is he going to handle that?
"Mils has played 98 tests and been one of the top No 15s in the world for a long time. He's having a bit of a flat patch at the moment but knowing Mils he will respond to the competition and it will be a real dogfight."
Henry said he was relaxed about shifting Nonu to centre to give Sonny Bill Williams a chance to live up to, er, his entourage's billing
"We don't know what is going to be happening later in the tournament, who is going to be standing and who isn't, so we have to give players opportunities to force their abilities on the selectors."
Hardly a ringing endorsement if you're still an S-B-Dubya man, but at least he gets a shot. From his perspective, Williams is just "excited" to get the chance. We know that because he told us about 17 times.
Henry's advice to his No 12: "Don't try and do it all in five minutes. Patience is going to be key. If he lets his natural ability control the way he plays, he will play well."
Williams says he's all about "fitting in" and "toning it down". He adds: "Sometimes I get a bit too excited out on the field. We've talked about that."
Keep a close eye on Dagg and Williams tomorrow. They're very much men on a mission.
Loosehead prop Tony Woodcock took a full part in All Blacks training yesterday, and looks set to take his place in the lineup after suffering a hamstring tweak.
ALL BLACKS: Israel Dagg, Richard Kahui, Ma'a Nonu, Sonny Bill Williams, Isaia Toeava, Dan Carter, Jimmy Cowan, Victor Vito, Richie McCaw (capt), Jerome Kaino, Ali Williams, Brad Thorn, Owen Franks, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Corey Flynn, Ben Franks, Anthony Boric, Sam Whitelock, Piri Weepu, Colin Slade, Cory Jane.