Smith gets the nod as Hansen reveals 'A' team
Aaron Smith has shaken off a knee injury to hold off Piri Weepu's push for the No 9 jersey as the All Blacks "A" team is restored for this weekend's test against Wales.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen didn't hesitate when asked today which position caused him the most deliberation this week.
His response was immediate, and revealing.
"Halfback," Hansen said in Cardiff.
"Piri Weepu's performance is the one we've been searching for. His performance against Scotland was outstanding. Not only did we see his experience but we saw him getting to the breakdown and clearing the ball the way we'd like him to."
After two below-par outings against the Wallabies and Italy, where his forwards failed to provide enough protection, Smith is officially on notice from his veteran rival, who could play a pivotal role from the bench at Millennium Stadium on Sunday (NZT).
"He may have got caught up in the test against Australia with how things have been going so well for him," Hansen said, assessing the reasons for Smith's dip in form.
"His preparation probably wasn't as complete as he would like.
"I thought he played reasonably well against Italy. It wasn't his fault that we didn't do the job as ball carries and at the cleanout. He got left carrying the baby so to speak, because other people didn't do their jobs.
"He was still sharp with his passing when he did get the protection he needed."
While fullback Israel Dagg returns from injury, Keven Mealamu has been given time to rest his injured calf, meaning Andrew Hore starts at hooker and Dane Coles gets another chance to impress later in the match.
Beauden Barrett (ribs), Adam Thomson (farcical IRB suspension appeal) and Tamati Ellison (toe) were also unavailable for selection.
"With his history of calf injuries we felt we would be better off being cautious and giving it another week rather than pushing him," Hansen said of Mealamu.
"It's also another opportunity to grow Dane Coles who we've been very happy with on the tour. For the long-term [future] we need Coles to get as much experience as possible."
There are three changes from the last time Hansen fielded his strongest line-up - that being the draw in Brisbane - and nine to last week's starting side in Rome. As expected, Richie McCaw regains the captaincy from Kieran Read after having a weeks rest.
After a two week trial, Hansen has confirmed Julian Savea, with 10 tries from seven tests, is New Zealand's best left wing, Luke Romano is the preferred locking partner for Sam Whitelock, and Liam Messam remains the premier blindside flanker.
"Liam has really stepped up this year," Hansen said in explaining why the Chiefs co-captain got the nod.
"We saw something in Victor's game against Scotland which was much improved. He was free. He was a little more carefree and looked more comfortable against Scotland. If he does that we know he's a really big, gifted athlete."
Brodie Retallick isn't far off a start, but Hansen felt the Chiefs lock had endured a big season and singled out Romano's ball carrying as vital for the opening exchanges.
The only other talking point was prop Charlie Faumuina's inclusion on the bench, ahead of new Hurricanes recruit Ben Franks. Faumuina's ability with ball in hand gave him the edge.
All Blacks: Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea, Dan Carter, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (c), Liam Messam, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Dane Coles, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Brodie Retallick, Victor Vito, Piri Weepu, Aaron Cruden, Ben Smith