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Ai'i switches to halfback for career

NZRU

NZPA     28 Jul 2004     NZRU

The gifted utility back and sevens exponent begins his new career in the Ranfurly Shield defence against Poverty Bay at Eden Park tomorrow.

Since his provincial debut in 1998, Ai'i, 24, has been shunted around the backline - filling in at first five-eighths, wing and fullback, but struggled to find his game in the Air New Zealand NPC and Rebel Sport Super 12 level.

Auckland coach Pat Lam offered Ai'i a career switch, competing with halfbacks David Gibson and Craig McGrath.

"Orene has converted to halfback. That is his position," Lam said.

"With Steve Devine out for the season, there's a lack of depth at halfback, in Auckland and New Zealand.

"I spoke to Orene about his future after the Super 12 because he wants to be an All Black. He's one of the most talented and skilful players in world rugby.

"It's a great opportunity but I didn't want to force him. I said if he wants to do it, he has to go the whole way. He can't play a bit of 10 and fullback as well. He came back four days later and said yes."

Lam has no doubts Ai'i will make a success of his new role.

"He'll handle the physical stuff and he offers a very good pass both ways. One of the most important jobs is to clear the ball quickly, particularly if you've got good backs."

Lam is also giving former All Blacks lock Bradley Mika the chance to spread his wings, by starting him at No 8, before swapping with lock Angus Macdonald at halftime.

Although Mika will primarily be a lock for Auckland this year, Lam said the new All Blacks regime wanted lineout leapers in the position so versatility would give Mika and Macdonald better chances to be promoted.

Meanwhile, Lam said he would allow All Blacks players to opt out of the Air New Zealand NPC starting next month because he only wanted players totally dedicated to the Auckland cause.

"I don't want to burden the All Blacks. It's a long season and they still have the end-of-year tour," he said.

"(Assistant coaches) Shane Howarth, Frank Bunce and myself know what it's like. At the moment they say they are keen but there are two more physical (Philips Tri Nations) Tests to go, so we'll see after that.

"Even if they want to play, I'll look at it case by case and see how the guy who has been playing has been going.

"They can have a brief holiday, or the whole NPC off if they want. We're preparing the squad as if there will be no All Blacks, and if we get one then it's a bonus."

Apart from Nathan Kemp and Ben Atiga, players from the Gallaher Shield club final between Ponsonby and Grammar Carlton are not included in the Auckland team for tomorrow's match.