Planet Rugby

Preview: New Zealand v Canada

14th June 2007 18:10

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doug howlett

Doug Howlett: Itching to get back among the tries

On paper, it is a complete mismatch. But it holds more water than New Zealand's Tests against France ever did - at least Canada are bringing more or less a full-strength side.

New Zealand have a full-strength side too, which rather suggests that Graham Henry does not think his big guns are quite up to speed yet despite smashing France's thirds last week. This is one more practice run for them, before the intensity is ratcheted up a couple of notches in Durban next week.

Two full-strength sides head to head. At last! It says something about the state of the world rugby calendar that the only touring team at near-full strength throughout the whole of June has been the Canucks.

This will be Canada's last - Canada's only - heavyweight clash before the Rugby World Cup; a one-off yardstick by which the senior members of the team can measure themselves, and a one-off chance for the junior members of the side to put their hands up and match the very best in the world. The other two warm-ups are against Portugal and Georgia, somehow just not the same thing.

A look at the Canadian side in more detail suggests that New Zealand might not put over the century of points most suggest is a given.

There are plenty of players from France's Top 14 for starters, and it is a great shame that two of the French league's finest locks - Mike James of Stade Franšais and the square-jawed Jamie Cudmore of Clermont - were both hurt in action in the Top 14 Final last weekend, for they could really have caused the weakened AB second row some problems.

Fly-half (Ryan Smith) and full-back (Mike Pyke) are both berths occupied by players from Montauban, the club that so nearly made it into the Heineken Cup in its first season back in France's top flight, and Agen's flanker Colin Yukes has been plying his trade in Lot-et-Garonne with Agen for several years.

Glasgow prop Kevin Tkatchuk is an experienced professional, as is scrum-half Morgan Williams of Albi in France and wing James Pritchard of Bedford - formerly of Northampton Saints and Perpignan. Pritchard also kicks a mean rate of goals.

They are a feisty lot too, as Wales will testify from the November international last year. Not foul-tempered or malicious, but they are not afraid of mixing it with opponents, regardless of the emblem on the opponents' shirts.

But that is about as far towards Canada as we can credibly go. In New Zealand's ranks you have the fly-half who once made a B&I Lions defence look comical, and outside of him, a three-quarter line of sheer magnificence.

Up front, there is a slightly more experimental cloud of steam hovering over the pack. There are two new caps: John Schwalger and Ross Filipo, and only in the back row are there a unit of players who could be considered regulars.

Yet all of the front five have earned their All Black spurs on merit just as much as default, and All Black coach Graham Henry wasted no time in crowing about the quality of his reserves, saying: "Ross [Filipo] will start this weekend's test and Rico (Gear) has plenty of experience in our environment. So they will be up to speed before we start the Tri-Nations."

"We've got some new combinations for the test in Hamilton which is a chance to further our depth and options, and gives us something of a fresh challenge."

Meanwhile, Canada coach Ric Suggitt has suggested he is about to accept the inevitable rather more graciously than Bernard Laporte did a week ago, simply telling his players to soak up the experience and learn from it.

"As athletes you want to challenge yourself against the best in the world, we're looking forward to it," he said.

"We're not going to bend over and moan and whine like the French did.

"This test will give us a good gauge on where we're at and help us pick up the speed of our game."

There has also been a refreshing air of detente and cordiality surrounding the whole tour - which Canada will conclude by playing the AB Under-21 team next Friday - with the All Blacks putting all sorts of technological training means at Canada's disposal. But that doesn't seem to have altered a refreshingly simple game-plan from the Canadians...

"We had a development side here last year, we always come down for the sevens .... we've been treated world class by New Zealand for the last few years," Suggitt enthused.

"You defend, you defend, you defend .... turn over the ball, go down the other end and score tries."

If only it were that simple.

Ones to watch:

For New Zealand: Debut man Ross Filipo will be worth a look on his first game, as will his fellow debutant John Schwalger. But a man still desperate to force his way into the first choice slot for his position is Super Rugby record try-scorer Doug Howlett, and he ought to have ample opportunity to do that on Saturday.

For Canada: One man with a point to prove will be Auckland-raised centre Craig Culpan who lines up in the centres opposite Luke McAlister. "Every kid in New Zealand dreams of playing for the All Blacks but that dream, for me, had gone out the window a long time ago. So, I guess if you can't play with them, you might as well play against them," laughed Culpan earlier this week.

"I'll approach it like any other game. It will, of course, be important because I want to do well in front of my family and friends. My buddies just want to see me get sat on my ass by Jerry Collins, but I hope to avoid that!"

Head to head: It will be interesting to see how Ryan Smith copes with Dan Carter at fly-half, and at scrum-half, the vastly experienced Morgan Williams will have to show all of that experience to deal with Byron Kelleher.

Past results:

2003: New Zealand won 68-6 in Melbourne (RWC)

1995: New Zealand won 73-7 in Auckland

1991: New Zealand won 29-13 in Lille (RWC)

Prediction: Let's go for New Zealand's biggest ever win over their visitors. New Zealand by 67 points.

The teams:

New Zealand: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Doug Howlett, 13 Luke McAlister, 12 Aaron Mauger, 11 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Byron Kelleher, 8 Jerry Collins, 7 Chris Masoe, 6 Reuben Thorne (c), 5 Ross Filipo, 4 Troy Flavell, 3 Neemia Tialata, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 John Schwalger.

Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Carl Hayman, 18 Rodney So'oialo, 19 Richie McCaw, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Rico Gear, 22 Leon MacDonald.

Canada: 15 Mike Pyke, 14 Justin Mensah-Coker, 13 Craig Culpan, 12 David Spicer, 11 James Pritchard, 10 Ryan Smith, 9 Morgan Williams (c), 8 Sean-Michael Stephen, 7 Stan Mckeen, 6 Colin Yukes, 5 Mike Burak, 4 Luke Tait, 3 Scott Franklin, 2 Pat Riordan, 1 Kevin Tkachuk.

Replacements: 16 Aaron Carpenter, 17 Dan Pletch, 18 Mike Pletch, 19 Josh Jackson, 20 Adam Kleeberger, 21 Dean van Camp, 22 Ed Fairhurst.

Date: Saturday, 16 June

Venue: Waikato Stadium, Hamilton

Kick-off: 19.35 (07.35 GMT)

Expected weather: Breezy, no rain, 12░C

Referee: Christophe Berdos (France)

Touch judges: Craig Joubert (South Africa), George Ayoub (Australia)

Television match official: Paul Marks (Australia)

Assessor: Bob Francis (New Zealand)

By Danny Stephens

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