Blacks braced for battle

Richie McCaw defies injury to start the semi-final against Wales, while flyhalf Aaron Cruden is elevated to the starting line-up.

Richard Kahui and Israel Dagg also come back into the side after injuries and run on at wing and fullback respectively, replacing Sonny Bill Williams (bench) and Mils Muliaina (injured). Cruden replaces Colin Slade, who torn a groin muscle against Argentina. Stephen Donald provides pivot cover on the wood.

McCaw has nursed a serious foot injury throughout the tournament and hasn’t trained with the squad on-field as yet. His first involvement with the collective will come at the captain’s run on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Andy Ellis is preferred to Jimmy Cowan as scrumhalf cover, while Ben Franks is also named on the bench after missing the win over the Pumas as a late withdrawal with stomach problem and Victor Vito is the loose forward reserve due to injury to Adam Thomson.

Speaking about the weight of responsibility on Cruden, the fourth flyhalf the All Blacks have used at the tournament, coach Graham Henry said: ‘He’s a bright rugby player, he knows the game well, he’s captained a lot of teams, he directs the traffic well.

‘It’s a big game isn’t it, the biggest game he’s ever played in, the biggest game a lot of them have played in quite frankly. I’m sure it’s challenging but he seems to be handling it well.’

Henry scoffed at the suggestion that the halfback pair of Piri Weepu and Cruden ‘didn’t get the job done’ despite victory against the Wallabies in Sydney in September last year.

‘In Cruden’s case he’s a year older, a lot more experienced, and I think that’s important,’ Henry said. ‘You learn from those experiences. That was his first big test. Very seldom are people the finished product in their first outing. You get better with age and he’ll be a very good footballer as time goes on. He’s a very good footballer now.

‘Piri was in that game, and he kicked a lot of penalties and conversions, and played particularly well. We finished up winning, so perhaps he did get the job done.’

There were reports that Sonny Bill Williams would start ahead of Kahui on the wing, but Henry was emphatic in his support of the latter. Sonny Bill has been a great player to bring off the bench. He can play a number of positions now and has become a bit of a supersub.

‘Richard has played superbly. We held him back last week but this World Cup he’s played some top footy. He seems to handle the big occasion well, it seems to bring the best out of him, and perhaps this is his best position. We didn’t have any doubt that if he was right he’d be picked,’ he said.

New Zealand – Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Richard Kahui, Aaron Cruden, Piri Weepu, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (c), Jerome Kaino, Sam Whitelock, Brad Thorn, Owen Franks, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock.
Subs: Andrew Hore, Ben Franks, Ali Williams, Victor Vito, Andy Ellis, Stephen Donald, Sonny Bill Williams