Steve Hansen says Fekitoa is 'special player'
Steve Hansen believes the new midfield combination of Ma'a Nonu and Malakai Fekitoa can be something "special", even if an unscheduled first outing this weekend has rather scuppered his plans to give Beauden Barrett the start he deserves.
The selection of the Tonga-born Highlanders rookie to replace the injured Conrad Smith (fractured thumb) at centre is one of two personnel changes made by Hansen for the third test against England at Waikato Stadium on Saturday night.
The long-awaited return of Kieran Read at No 8 is the other, with the comeback from ongoing head problems of the IRB's player of 2013 resulting in Jerome Kaino nudging his good friend Liam Messam out of the starting No 6 role.
Almost as notable as those three changes is the retention of Aaron Cruden at first five-eighths ahead of the in-form Barrett who continues to excel in his bench role. Many pundits - and even Hansen himself, he grudgingly conceded - felt the Canes playmaker deserved what would have been his first start in the No 10 jersey.
Hansen conceded the new midfield combination forced him to take a rethink on his plans for Barrett. With the return of Dan Carter imminent, this weekend would have presented an ideal opportunity for the national coaches to get a close-up look at how the 23-year-old performed in the starting role.
"One of the reasons we haven't given Beauden a start is that we don't want two new combinations on the park. The other one is we trust Crudes to do the job," Hansen said today ahead of their main training session of the week.
"It's early in the season for us so we're trying to build combinations back up and get ourselves in position to go into the Rugby Championship in a strong position."
Pressed, Hansen admitted he would likely have started Barrett this week had he not been forced into his midfield tweak.
"We thought a lot about it," he said. "He's playing really well, but the team comes first. We just feel that's the best thing to do, run with that combination early and bring Beaudy on later on. He'll get plenty of game-time."
Hansen also shrugged off the need to see Barrett as a test starter with only two of his 18 test caps earned in the run-on XV - and both of those at fullback.
"If you've got an imagination you can work out what he's going to do when he starts because he does it when he comes on," Hansen said with typical robust directness.
"He's been a fantastic player off the bench if you think about all the tests he's come on and made a difference. I'm not sure that Crudes is that type of player either - he's more of a starting five-eighth.
"He (Barrett) will get an opportunity - just like Ben Smith had to wait and when he got an opportunity he took it."
It will be interesting to see whether Hansen backs up that assertion when Carter is back and he's making a decision between Cruden and Barrett for his bench. On the strength of today's comments, Barrett must be the designated backup.
The All Blacks coach has also read the speculation that Fekitoa and Nonu - two peas from the same pod - can't combine effectively together.
"I've read a few pieces where people are a little nervous about them as a combination. Though they're similar in some ways, they're vastly different in others and they'll be a good combination going forward.
"But like with any new combination, it takes time. There will be mistakes. It's just what we do when we make the mistakes and how quickly we repair it. I'm not too concerned. I think [Fekitoa's] going to be a special player and the guy inside him is already a special player. As long as they talk to each other and are reading what's in front of them there shouldn't be too many problems."
The decision to go with Kaino - back near his best so very quickly - was tough, but went with the territory at this level as the All blacks shoot for the series sweep. "JK was playing well, so he's got the shot. But Liam is going to be on because Reado won't play the whole game."
Speaking of Read, Hansen offered a tantalising insight into the mindset and drive of the hard-nosed, multi-faceted Cantab who will earn his 62nd test cap on Saturday.
"About two days ago he asked me 'what am I going to hear when you read the team out?'. I said 'K Read (Canterbury), No 8', and he just cracked a big smile. Since then he's just gone [gangbusters]. He trained fantastically on Tuesday, and has been so bouncing around the hotel, so excited."
It's tempting to suggest that Hansen could have raised those excitement levels even further by giving Barrett that well-deserved first start. But then again, having won his last 16 tests on the trot, this guy does seem to know what he's doing.
All Blacks: Ben Smith, Cory Jane, Malakai Fekitoa, Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (capt), 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.