Some star All Blacks players face a crossroads when New Zealand plays the United States in Chicago on Saturday in a rare rugby meeting on American soil.
Flyhalf Daniel Carter, the leading scorer in international rugby, has been included on the bench for the match that begins the World Cup champion All Blacks’ five-match northern hemisphere tour. If he takes the field, it will be for the first time in a year for New Zealand after he took a break from rugby and then broke his leg.
Captain Richie McCaw, another long-term fixture of the All Blacks team, is being rested for the match, leaving Kieran Read to lead the squad. There are a series of other changes across the field since the All Blacks’ last-minute 29-28 win over Australia two weeks ago, including a return for Sonny Bill Williams.
”This is going to be an exciting occasion for the team, playing the USA in front of a record crowd here in Chicago,” New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen said. ”It’s another chance for those selected to pull on the jersey and play well. On this northern tour we want to give all players in the squad the opportunity to grow their game – and we also want to develop our game as a team – and it starts on Saturday.”
Carter needs to prove his fitness Saturday to win further game time on tour and to restore his status as New Zealand’s premier playmaker.
Aaron Cruden, who starts at No. 10 against the U.S. Eagles, is also under pressure to re-establish himself after a disciplinary lapse.
The 32-year-old Carter, who has 1,440 points in tests, was allowed a seven-month break from rugby after New Zealand’s test against England in London last November. He returned near the end of the Super Rugby season but broke his leg in the tournament final in August between his Christchurch-based Crusaders and the New South Wales Waratahs.
Carter has played only half a game for his Canterbury province since returning from that injury, which continues to trouble him with nerve pain.
At his best, Carter was among the best flyhalves international rugby has seen, but a long series of injuries has cast doubt over his ability to guide the All Blacks at the top level and he needs to prove himself to press his claims for World Cup selection.
Cruden, who replaced Carter as New Zealand’s first-choice flyhalf, wasn’t selected for tests against South Africa, Argentina and Australia after being suspended for missing a team flight during the Rugby Championship.
His selection Saturday places pressure on him to win back the respect and confidence of the All Blacks selectors, and to regain his starting place from Beauden Barrett.
The match will also see the return Williams, who spent the last two years after New Zealand’s World Cup win playing for the Sydney Roosters in Australia’s National Rugby League competition.
Williams quit the NRL to play rugby union in 2008, won an All Blacks call-up in 2010 and played at the 2011 World Cup. He left New Zealand rugby again in 2012 – first for Japan, then for rugby league in Australia – but has returned in an effort to reclaim a place at the 2015 World Cup.
Williams also has to convince sceptics that the can play both rugby codes with equal ability and is worthy of the second chance the All Blacks have offered him.
The All Blacks have taken the opportunity in their first test against the United States since 1991 – and only their third on U.S. soil after matches in 1913 and 1980 – to name a largely experimental lineup.
Prop Joe Moody, hooker Nathan Harris, lock Patrick Tuipulotu, flankers Sam Cane and Victor Vito, scrumhalf T.J. Perenara and winger Charles Piutau have all been given rare starting roles.
Scrumhalf Augustine Pulu is likely to make his All Blacks debut from the bench.
Saturday’s match is expected to be played in front of a crowd of 61,500 – the largest-ever for a rugby match in the United States.
”While we are giving a number of players another opportunity this weekend, our expectation is that they will play to the highest level and we get a quality performance,” Hansen said.
New Zealand: Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams, Charles Piutau, Aaron Cruden, T.J. Perenara; Kieran Read (captain), Sam Cane, Victor Vito, Patrick Tuipulotu, Jeremy Thrush, Charlie Faumuina, Nathan Harris, Joe Moody. Reserves: Keven Mealamu, Wyatt Crockett, Ben Franks, Brodie Retallick, Liam Messam, Augustine Pulu, Daniel Carter, Julian Savea.