Muliaina and Slade out; Gear and Donald in
A shoulder injury has brought the curtain down on the career of All Black Mils Muliaina, with the veteran fullback forced to pull out of the Rugby World Cup.
Colin Slade is also out of the tournament with Hosea Gear and Stephen Donald being drafted in, and Aaron Cruden now the team's premier first five-eighth.
That was the scenario confirmed by All Blacks coach Graham Henry this afternoon ahead of Sunday's semifinal against the Wallabies.
It was an emotional Muliaiana who spoke to the press as he comes to terms with a fractured shoulder (suffered just under halfway through his 100th test), while first-five Slade has torn his adductor - both injuries occurring in Sunday's night's 33-10 quarterfinal victory over Argentina at Eden Park.
The 31-year-old was close to tears as he spoke about the enjoyment of his international career and playing in thre World Cups.
"I'm particularly proud to be an All Black, but it's a little bit sad bccause I know I'm not going to be back.
"But I've met some amazing people. I'm proud to be a Kiwi."
Meanwhile 22-year-old Manawatu five-eighth Cruden, who only joined the squad last week after Dan Carter's tournament-ending groin injury, is now the man charged with "navigating" the New Zealanders to their first World Cup in 24 years. And Donald - a man derided in some parts for his failure to live up to expectations during his time as an All Black - is the designated back-up.
Henry confirmed the temptation to move halfback Piri Weepu into the No 10 position would be resisted because it was felt he was too important to the team where he was.
"They're very disappointed," said Henry of the injuries suffered by Muliaina and Slade. Just a few short days ago Slade was being portrayed as the man capable of steering the ship through the murky waters of finals football.
"They've got tournament-ending injuries, so how they feel is very natural. They're very disappointed to be leaving the group at this stage of the tournament.
"It's a difficult situation. They can't stay with the team."
Gear - dreadfully unlucky to miss initial selection - and Donald would join the All Blacks tomorrow, with Muliaina and Slade both forced to leave at that time.
Henry said the fact Gear (eight tests) and Donald (22 tests) had both spent time in the squad over the last year would make their entry a much smoother one than it might have been.
"We're lucky the guys coming in have played test-match football in recent times," added Henry. "[The situation] is not out of their control, because they have been here, they know the players, know the environment we live in and know the rugby we're trying to play.
"Keeping Aaron Cruden off his skateboard has been a major. Last week he was skateboarding round Palmerston North having a couple of beers and watching us play.
"Now he's the No 1 No 10 in the country. It's a big challenge but last weekend he handled the situation particularly well," said the coach in reference to Cruden's generally tidy 47 minutes against Argentina.
Having lost his two initial selections in the all-important pivot position, the All Blacks coach was doing his best to keep his cheery demeanour ahead of such a huge match. The Wallabies haven't won at Eden Park in 25 years, though the New Zealanders have never beaten their trans-Tasman rivals in the knockout stages of the World Cup.
"That's the reality so you've just got to make sure it works," he said. "It's a setback, lets be frank, but it's reality so you get on with it."
With Donald the most likely of the two new replacements to be pressed into action this weekend - possibly as a reserve - Henry admitted to some challenges in that area.
"It's not so much the knowledge of what we're trying to do, its being out there and doing it. It's all very well having that knowledge but there's no substitute for doing that in the heat of the battle.
"These gentlemen haven't done that for a while, so that's the challenge."
Henry was confident his squad would take the latest setback in their stride and he said it was important the next few days were approached sensibly.
"I think we've played 10 test matches in 12 weeks, so we've played a lot of football. The way we handle that is going to be very important this week. We handled it very well last week - you just can't train as you normally train. You've got to make sure the guys have got full tanks on Sunday and good clarity."
On the positive side, Henry confirmed that Israel Dagg (thigh haematoma) and Richard Kahui (hamstring) were both over their afflictions and likely to be fit to face the Wallabies on Sunday.