All Blacks backs still dangerous despite changes
Updated: October 21, 2011, 19:16
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AUCKLAND, New Zealand(AP) New Zealand will go into the Rugby World Cup final against France with a backline almost entirely changed from the one it deployed at the start of the tournament, but still confident the new combination may be the best in the game.
Among that backline, flyhalf Aaron Cruden and winger Cory Jane weren't even members of New Zealand's 30-man squad when it was first named in August, scrumhalf Piri Weepu and fullback Israel Dagg were understudies to more senior players and winger Richard Kahui was preferred as a center.
Injuries and form fluctuations have radically changed the shape of the All Blacks backline over the past six weeks but New Zealand still heads into Sunday's final at Eden Park with a back division considered the best attacking unit in the competition.
Dagg began as backup to fullback Mils Muliaina. But Muliaina's loss of form, then the broken shoulder that ruled the 100-test veteran out of the tournament installed the 23-year-old Dagg in the starting role.
After a poor Super 15 season with the troubled Wellington Hurricanes, Jane was named among four players on injury standby for New Zealand's 30-man Cup squad. He was quickly taken into the squad and as his form and confidence lifted he cemented a starting place.
Kahui was chosen at center but was moved to the left wing because of injuries and sealed that spot with two tries in New Zealand's opening pool match against Tonga.
Weepu began the tournament second in the All Blacks' scrumhalf pecking order behind the then 47-test veteran Jimmy Cowan, favored on the bench for his ability to cover both halfback positions. But Cowan's form faded and Weepu became first-choice No. 9, then an indispensible member of New Zealand's starting XV and one of its players of the tournament.
Cruden missed selection in New Zealand's Cup squad as coaches Graham Henry, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen preferred Colin Slade as understudy to star flyhalf Dan Carter. He was relaxing in his home town of Palmerston North, skateboarding and watching World Cup matches on television when Carter suffered the groin injury near the end of pool play that ruled him out of the tournament.
Cruden was called up as the next-in-line No. 10 and chosen on the bench for the quarterfinal against Argentina. After only 33 minutes, Slade went off with a tournament-ending groin injury and the 22-year-old Cruden became New Zealand's first-choice.
He thrived in the role and New Zealand now enter the final without Carter, seen before the tournament as the key to its World Cup success, but now with full confidence in the rookie playmaker's ability to steer it to victory.
Only centers Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith, New Zealand's most-experienced midfield pairing, managed to survive the World Cup's pool stages, quarterfinal and semifinal as first-choice members of the All Blacks backline.
Now its much-changed lineup has the chance to complete a World Cup victory which would likely see them ranked among the best backlines New Zealand has fielded. So far at the tournament New Zealand has scored 39 tries, 10 more than Wales and 11 more than Australia, who fought out Friday's third place playoff.
Jane said his omission from New Zealand's squad for this season's Tri-Nations tournament had provided the incentive he needed to set aside his poor Super 15.
"It was a hell of a start to the season,'' he said. "I knew I could do it, it's just I had to pull my head out and get there.
"I guess not making it in the Tri-Nations flicked that switch and made me work harder and get my act together.''
Dagg's bid to make New Zealand's World Cup squad was almost undone by injury. Playing in a Super 15 match for the Canterbury Crusaders against the Cape Town-based Stormers on May 7, he hit a spiralling punt then collapsed with a searing pain in his right thigh.
He had ruptured a muscle in his right quadriceps, an injury so rare that the All Blacks medical staff had to scour the world to find similar examples and to set a time frame for his recovery. He began a long and careful rehabilitation, uncertain whether he had time to regain fitness to regain the confidence of the All Blacks coaches.
"Doubts crept into my mind and there was adversity and all that sort of thing,'' Dagg said. "I just had to do everything right, lots of strengthening and when I got my opportunity I had to prove I was capable of doing the job.''
He finally regained his place in the All Blacks' lineup for its next-to-last Tri-Nations match against South Africa and played superbly in a losing team. He has carried that form into the World Cup, becoming an integral member of the team.
"We have a great team around us and it makes things easier when the team around you does their job and everyone knows what they're doing and what the game plan is,'' he said. "Obviously with the All Blacks there is a bit more pressure as the whole country is watching, but I try not to get caught up in that and just go out there and play my game with a clear head.''
Dagg, Jane, Kahui and Cruden have produced play throughout the tournament which seems the product only of instinct, extemporaneous attacking play which has cut open some of the world's best defenses.
"You plan for things but you want the counterattack to just be instinct, you don't want to have to be set in plans on where they kick, what you want to do,'' he said. "Our job is to catch the ball and our mates are our eyes, they tell us if we have to get up or who's coming and stuff like that, where the spaces are. We're just there to catch it and unleash the next fellow.
"There's a lot of talk back there, where the holes are, where the space is, who to attack, but it's pretty much instinct.''