Monday, December 7, 2009

Chance for fringe All Blacks to shine in Six Nations Hospitality

New Zealand coach Graham Henry has challenged his squad's reserve players to finish the All Blacks' turbulent year on a high by beating a star-studded Barbarians team at Twickenham on Saturday.

After a tough start to a season which saw them lose to France at home and three times to world champions South Africa, New Zealand have won six straight Tests to return to the top of the International Rugby Board (IRB) world rankings.

Since the Tri-Nations, the All Blacks have defeated Australia in Tokyo and then Wales, Italy, England and France on consecutive weekends in what has been a demanding but successful European tour.

Henry will give his fringe players a chance against the Baa-Baas - only two players, captain Richie McCaw and full-back Cory Jane, survive from the team that started the 39-12 victory over France last weekend - and he is urging his young side to grasp a rare chance to impress on the big stage.

"Things have got better as they've been going along this year," Henry said.

"It got messy for a number of reasons but once we got settled, it's been positive progress.

"I think this is a great opportunity for the young guys who haven't played a lot on this tour. It's great that it's a very strong Barbarians side and I think it'll bring the best out of the players.

"We came on this tour with two goals - the first was to play rugby that we're proud of and to win, and the second was for guys to put their hands up for future All Blacks' selection.

"For those who haven't played a lot, this is an opportunity."

New Zealand's best performance of the tour came against France, with Henry's men scoring five unanswered tries to avenge the 27-22 loss to Les Bleus in Dunedin in June.

Many welcomed a return to running rugby in that match in Marseille after a November international programme blighted by a series of turgid contests.

Henry though is predicting more entertainment at Twickenham this weekend.

"We want to try and play like we did last week. That's the standard that's been set," he said.

"It takes two sides to play that kind of rugby. The French certainly tried to play an attacking style of football and so did we.

"I assume that's what the Baa-Baas will do, so it should be a classic."

Henry insisted he hadn't bowed to any outside or commercial pressure by picking McCaw in an otherwise second-string team for a non-cap international.

The flanker, who was this week named the IRB 2009 Player of the Year, cannot wait for the season to draw to a close but is ready to put in one last shift.

"I'm ready for a break," said McCaw, who has played 10 of 14 Tests this year.

"I'm certainly looking forward to a rest - turning up for rugby for a whole year, it's not so much the games but the training that goes with it.

"But body-wise, I'm really good. What's been good about this week is that it's not a Test match so it makes it a little bit easier to get ready for Saturday," he added.

Henry is not expecting a walk in the park against a Barbarians team which will be crammed full of talent and which has had a week's training together.

Captained by South Africa's World Cup-winning lock Victor Matfield, the side also features his fellow Springboks Bryan Habana, Fourie du Preez and Jaque Fourie as well as Australia stars Rocky Elsom and Matt Giteau, and Wales centre Jamie Roberts.

"They have world-class players across the team, and have pride in what they do," Henry said.

"Plus I think there is a desire to beat the All Blacks. That's always there. I see Bryan Habana has been talking about that already. It's nice to know they are pretty keen."

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