By Andy Colquhoun
Wellington - A row over race has plunged the New Zealand rugby team into controversy on the eve of their Tri-Nations test against South Africa in Wellington on Saturday.
A prominent former All Black has accused coach John Mitchell of excluding Maori and Polynesian players in favour of Pakeha (European-descended) players.
The storm broke over the team in a column written by former All Black international Chris Laidlaw in Friday's Dominion Post, the morning newspaper of the New Zealand capital, Wellington.
The issue was the first question at both the New Zealand and South African press conferences with Bok manager Gideon Sam admitting: "It was a shock to see that in this part of the world you are still talking about race issues."
Laidlaw based his argument on the fact that leading players such as Tana Umaga and Jonah Lomu had been surprisingly omitted from last week's test against Australia and are only on the bench against South Africa.
He also highlighted the exclusion of other outstanding Super 12 performers of Maori or Polynesian origin such as Roger Randle, Bruce Reihana, Jerry Collins and Pita Alatini as evidence of a bias.
He wrote: "The fact that Mitchell and Deans have opted for a Pakeha squad might be an accident or it might not. I think not."
He said that Mitchell and assistant coach Robbie Deans (the mentor of Super 12 champions the Crusaders) were effectively prejudiced against non-European players because they were claimed to be error-prone.
"Mitchell is a conservative when it comes to preparing horses for courses," wrote Laidlaw. "He has shown that he values accuracy, consistency and reliability above flair and imagination and, whatever one might think about the entertainment merits of this, he has proved his point thus far.
"It so happens that in his quest for these qualities he has opted for almost exclusively Pakeha players.
"Setting aside a very tenuous Maori connection or two this (the team that played Australia) was essentially the All Whites dressed in black," said Laidlaw.
The only Maori in the side is wing Caleb Ralph who, by default, now leads the Haka for the team. Fellow wing Doug Howlett has a Tongan mother, and inside centre Aaron Mauger and fullback Christian Cullen have Tongan ancestry.
Mitchell made a robust defence of his position. He said: "I find it very offensive and totally inaccurate. Eleven players in our 26 are non-European and we are very much into character and that's what we select on."
Captain Reuben Thorne denied that the storm would affect his side's preparation.
"It's the last thing on our minds," he said. "It a surprise and it's unfortunate but we are just focused on the game.
"The blokes were talking about it this morning, but it won't affect us."
Mitchell said: "No two preparations are the same and we are playing a side with totally different strengths to the Wallabies and that's all we've been thinking about.
"The Springboks are a proud rugby team and in New Zealand we always look forward to their arrival."
Mitchell goes into the test with a 100% record having won all eight of his matches since taking over from Wayne Smith towards the end of last year.
Meanwhile Springbok captain Corne Krige admitted that the New Zealand race storm might aid his side.
"We respect New Zealand rugby and we don't want there to be problems, but it's not a bad thing for us. We are very happy with the way we have prepared and we are looking forward to the game."