Steve Hansen takes a gamble on Piri Weepu
Steve Hansen likes a flutter.
No stranger to the racetrack, Hansen yesterday took a punt around the selection table when preferring halfbacks Piri Weepu and Aaron Smith ahead of Andy Ellis in his 30-man All Blacks squad.
By omitting Ellis the new All Blacks coach has demonstrated he is unafraid to make controversial decisions, while Weepu, who has been maligned for his weight issues and poor form, can also expect intense scrutiny this week.
Until Hansen names his first All Blacks team to face Ireland at Eden Park this weekend the debates about whether Weepu is fit enough to start a test or should be on the bench will intensify.
Does Hansen risk starting him, and then bring the uncapped Smith on in the second half, or should he ease Weepu in by listing him in the substitutes?
It is all part of the Hansen gamble.
Hansen offered multiple reasons for selecting Weepu. He refuses to ignore the contribution the 56-test veteran made to the All Blacks' successful World Cup campaign and noted he can kick goals and cover first five-eighth.
Despite Smith's inexperience, Hansen values his strong passing game and compared him to former All Black Graeme Bachop, who was famed for his wrist action when whipping away his trademark bullets.
"He [Smith] brings something we haven't had in a wee while and then we wanted to keep some experience and it came down to either Piri or Andy," Hansen said. "And we just felt Piri's added ability to goal kick and play first five if we got a double injury as we did in the quarterfinal in 2007, they are advantages."
It was also Weepu who eased the pressure on the All Blacks coaches after Dan Carter suffered his serious groin injury at last year's global tournament. He took over the goal kicking in the playoffs and provided a calm head when replacement first five-eighths Colin Slade and Aaron Cruden suffered serious injuries.
Instructed to lose weight by Hansen, something he struggled to do for Blues coach Pat Lam, Weepu has embarked on a training programme and has also been working out with former Warriors hard nut and boxer Monty Betham.
"He is now in better shape than what he was at this time for the World Cup," Hansen added.
"He is highly motivated. It gives us confidence we will get the Piri Weepu that we know and have all loved in the past."
Weepu has emphasised he is committed to not letting Hansen or himself down. But if he struggles with the increased tempo of a test and the inexperienced Smith is pitched into the difficult situation and struggles with the heat, there is the potential for a mishap.
The unlucky Ellis will be no use to anyone sitting back in his Christchurch lounge.
Hansen says he values Weepu for his ability to cover No10 and kick goals, yet has ample cover for this position in Carter, Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett for the three-test series.
Lock Ali Williams also wins a reprieve from Hansen despite his mediocre form. Williams rarely shines for the Blues – his best Super form was displayed for the Crusaders in 2008 – and this season has been no exception, but Hansen refuses to ignore his 73 test caps.
Hansen has selected seven newcomers including Crusader Luke Romano. The others are Ben Tameifuna (Hawke's Bay), Sam Cane and Brodie Retallick (Bay of Plenty), Julian Savea (Wellington), Barrett (Taranaki) and Smith (Manawatu).
Hika Elliot is in the squad as cover for the injured Keven Mealamu. Charlie Faumuina, Cory Jane and Richard Kahui were named in the recent training squad but withdrew because of injury.