Fekitoa to start for All Blacks in No 13 shirt
Malakai Fekitoa's rise continues.
The chance to prove he is, indeed, Conrad Smith's heir apparent at centre has arrived earlier than most expected, but everything about his rapid progression suggests he will seize the moment.
After one cameo from the bench at Eden Park, Fekitoa will start his second test outside Ma'a Nonu as the All Blacks chase a 3-0 sweep over England in Hamilton on Saturday.
For the third week in a row Aaron Cruden has been given the nod at first five-eighth, holding off Beauden Barrett's strong claims for a maiden test start at No 10.
Once again, the Hurricanes playmaker is forced to wait for his time to run the cutter.
Kieran Read also makes a welcome return from his lengthy struggles with concussion, having played one match in the last eight weeks. That sees Jerome Kaino switch to his favoured role, where his physically imposing presence is preferred over Liam Messam at blindside flanker.
Fekitoa's unique qualities - his fast feet, strength, elusive speed and crunching spot tackles - have been impossible to ignore this year.
With Hurricanes captain Smith sidelined by a broken thumb last week, the selectors could have opted for Ryan Crotty's safe hands. That was the conservative route.
Instead, they have backed the young buck to handle the occasion. There's only one way to find out whether his calm temperament can transfer into the heat of battle.
The Nonu-Fekitoa combination, while exciting, carries risks. Smith's experience offered crucial balance the All Blacks' midfield may now struggle to replicate. His ability to organise the backline defence and feed his outsides is unmatched in New Zealand rugby, and possibly the world game. Adjustments will need to be made to cater for the change in attributes.
Former All Blacks centre Frank Bunce recently summed up the challenges of a Nonu-Fekitoa pairing.
"You might get away with it once or twice but it's not ideal," Bunce said earlier this year. "You've got two very similar players who possess similar threats. Organising your defence becomes a lot easier. Having a difference in the capabilities of your midfielders is very important."
England are also expected to restore Manu Tuilagi in their midfield after his failed experiment on the wing in Dunedin. His destructive ball carrying, and Fekitoa's tendency to rush out of the line at times, creates further intrigue.
Tongan-born Fekitoa, the power-packed Highlanders centre, harnesses a self-assured nature that should see him relish the prospect of facing Tuilagi, a fellow Pacific Island prodigy, who was born in Samoa. Crotty can be called on later if needed.
In the only other change to the bench, Messam's relegation forces Victor Vito out of the squad.
"Whilst we felt we improved from the first test to the second, there are areas of our game we want to improve on and that has been the focus for us this week," All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said.
"We enjoy playing in Hamilton and in front of a sold-out Waikato Stadium we are looking forward to producing a quality performance that we can all be proud of."
Captain Richie McCaw joins Sean Fitzpatrick on 128 games for the All Blacks, second equal behind Colin Meads' 133.
ALL BLACKS: Ben Smith, Cory Jane, Malakai Fekitoa, Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (c), Jerome Kaino, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Keven Mealamu, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Patrick Tuipulotu, Liam Messam, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Ryan Crotty.