Stephen Donald has edged All Blacks rival Luke McAlister in the race for New Zealand's No 10 shirt ahead of Saturday's Tri Nations opener against Australia. With Wallabies coach Robbie Deans revealing his side on Tuesday, the All Blacks selectors delayed naming their team as they weighed up the fitness and relative merits of both players.
Fly-half has been an issue for the All Blacks in recent months, with neither Donald or McAlister stamping authority in a position vacated by injured Dan Carter. However, Donald has been given the nod, with the Kiwi coach Graham Henry insisting the 25-year- old's previous experience in the position - and the quality of the opposition - swung selectors. "Steve's played at 10 for a considerable period of time; he has the knowledge of navigating a team - that was the biggest factor," said Henry. "Basically it came down to a huge ask for Luke to go in and boss around the team against a side of Australia's quality. You have to be pragmatic and make the sensible decision.
"We believe he is the right man for this Test match," he added. Donald's selection suggests Henry is looking to play a more conservative and structured game as the holders begin the defence of a Tri Nations tournament they have dominated since 2005. While Donald's recent hamstring injury - suffered last month against France - prolonged the decision, Henry was quick to dismiss claims the fly-half's limitations had been exposed against the European side.
"I know he got some criticism for the way he played but we've been pleased with him," Henry said, adding: "He's a heady footballer, he'll run your team, give you 100 per cent - and he'll get better." Donald's selection for the first Bledisloe Cup clash did not surprise Deans, who always expected him to oppose the Wallabies' Matt Giteau in Auckland. "We fully anticipated they'd opt for Stephen Donald if he was fit, simply because of his background in that role," said Deans.
Echoing Henry's view, Deans added: "It's more a reflection of the fact he's more accustomed to playing 10, whereas McAlister lacks that background." The Australians will try to end a 10-match losing streak at Eden Park that stretches back to 1986. "In theory it's a rectangle and it shouldn't matter where it is. But history suggests there's more to it than that," he said. "It's obviously got a fair amount to do with the emotion. It's a bastion for the All Blacks; they're very conscious of their successful history and the opportunity to maintain and own a piece of it."
However, the former Crusaders coach believes his players will step up and relish the hostile atmosphere: "It's a great place to test yourself." The challenge facing the Wallabies is heightened by the return of influential All Blacks' captain Richie McCaw to a pack which appeared uncharacteristically lightweight in the June Tests against France and Italy. New Zealand have not selected a specialist openside on the replacements' bench, meaning McCaw - in his first match back - faces a gruelling 80 minutes negating Australia's potentially game-defining influence at the breakdown.
The All Blacks coaching staff, however, said the workload should not be a problem for the powerful 28-year-old. "We expect him to play the 80," said forward coach Steve Hansen. "He's done it before, he's our leader and we want him on the park." email@example.com