SCRUM-half Piri Weepu has been dropped from the New Zealand squad for this month’s Rugby Championships as the All Blacks selectors favoured an uncapped 21-year-old over the 71-Test World Cup winner.
Wellington Hurricanes scrum-half TJ Perenara was named in Weepu’s place yesterday in a 28-man squad for the Rugby Championships which also involves Australia, Argentina and South Africa. All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen said Weepu, 29, who was one of the heroes of New Zealand’s 2011 World Cup victory, now struggled to provide the pace of delivery the All Blacks needed for their attacking game.
Hansen said Weepu’s international career isn’t over but “we just felt that how we are trying to play the game, the speed of the game we are trying to play, (Weepu) is just struggling with that.”
Weepu was a crucial figure in New Zealand’s 2011 World Cup victory, filling in at fly-half and taking goalkicking responsibilities as the All Blacks’ wrestled with a series of injuries. He became known as “Mr Fixit” and his ability to perform in a crisis led to Weepu jokes, popularised on social media. “He (Weepu) has been an outstanding contributor to New Zealand rugby and his greatest hour was through that World Cup in 2011 when he really stood up and played particularly well,” Hansen said. “He has been a great servant to the All Blacks and been an important part of our team for a long time both on and off the field. Like all of us there will be a time when it is time to make the change and the three selectors as a group feel this is the time.” Weepu has fought a battle throughout his career to maintain top fitness. He transferred from the Wellington-based Hurricanes to the Auckland-based Blues at the start of the 2012 season but struggled at his new team because of weight problems. He was an important contributor to the Blues’ improved performance early in this year’s Super Rugby tournament but his form faded, as did the Blues. Weepu played for the All Blacks against France in June but struggled with the pace.
The All Blacks under Hansen have tried to develop a relentlessly fast-paced game and that depends on the speed of delivery from the scrum-half. Hansen expects the scrum-half to be a conduit to move the ball quickly from the forwards to the backs, particularly to regular fly-halves Dan Carter and Aaron Cruden, who guide the attack.
Aaron Smith, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and newcomer Perenara are seen to possess a faster pass than Weepu and have been chosen for that reason. “His last game really confirmed what our thoughts were,” Hansen said. “The speed of the game getting from A to B to C is high and because of that his skill set is not flourishing. He knows he has to go away and get sharper and fitter than he is now, even though he is at the best he has been for quite some time.
“It is something which over a wee period of time we have seen and started to question and when we sat down and talked to him he understood what we were talking about.”
Perenara came close to an All Blacks spot last year but suffered a serious leg injury in a pre-season match. He recovered to reclaim his place with the Hurricanes and to restate his All Blacks claims and is the only new cap.
Back rower Victor Vito was omitted from the squad, allowing the rising Blues star Steven Luatua to retain the place. Vito has played 21 tests but has not yet cemented a place on the blindside flank. Luatua’s Blues team-mate Charles Piutau has also retained a place as full back understudy to Israel Dagg.