Ben Smith to start at fullback; Read still out
Israel Dagg has succumbed to injury, awarding Ben Smith a rare opportunity to start at fullback in Saturday night's test against England in Dunedin.
While there will once again be eyebrows raised about the omission of No 8 Kieran Read, who didn't play in the All Blacks' 20-15 win over the tourists at Eden Park last weekend because of concussion, it is Smith's shift from wing to the No 15 jersey that will dominate much discussion among rugby punters today.
Dagg, who took a limited part in training earlier this week due to thigh and knee issues, has not been deemed fit enough to play in the second test at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
Julian Savea, as expected, returns from a minor knee injury to play on the left wing and Cory Jane is on the right.
Smith, who has never started at fullback since playing the first of his 27 tests against Italy in Milan in late 2009, must be relishing this chance to show his skills in a position he has seen filled by the likes of Mils Muliaina, Isaia Toeava, Beauden Barrett and Dagg during that period.
So too must those Highlanders fans who have long preached that fullback is his best position and that he is overdue for a shot there on the international stage.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has always been a fan of Dagg and since taking over from Graham Henry in 2012 he has been reluctant to push him out of his starting side.
But as he aims to wrap-up the three-test series, Hansen's hand has been forced and although Colin Slade, Jane and Barrett have experience at fullback, Smith was the always the obvious candidate to start at the back.
He isn't the most vocal of people but the 28-year-old will be eager to prove to Hansen he has little need to fret.
Savea adds some much-needed punch to the All Blacks' attack and another week together surely means the backline will not record the number of basic handling errors that marred their performance against the feisty English defenders last weekend.
Savea, who has scored 19 tries in 20 tests, has the potential to rip through the tourists' defence and even though Read is missing, the English will not have forgotten how the whirlwind Hurricanes finisher combined so well with the No 8 when he scored two tries in the 30-22 win over them in London last November.
Playing under the roof should is also expected to encourage the All Blacks to play more expansively and if they can string more phases together - something we didn't see much of in Auckland - they will hope to make the defences tire.
The absence of Read will also be of some relief to blindside flanker Liam Messam.
Messam struggled to make an impact at Eden Park. With Jerome Kaino in such good form at No 8, he will know Hansen must be tempted to move the World Cup medal winner back to the more familiar blindside.
All Blacks: Ben Smith, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith, Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw (captain), Liam Messam, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Keven Mealamu, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Patrick Tuipulotu, Victor Vito, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Malakai Fekitoa.
- The Press
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