Ben Smith in, Israel Dagg out for the All Blacks

MARC HINTON
Last updated 05:00 14/08/2014
Ben Smith stndrd
ROBYN EDIE/Fairfax NZ
SOUTHERN MAN COMETH: Ben Smith has beaten Israel Dagg for the All Backs fullback jersey for the Bledisloe opener in Sydney.

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Steve Hansen has sprung a Bledisloe selection surprise of his own, picking the in-form Ben Smith at fullback and dropping a fully fit Israel Dagg for the first time since he became the first-choice All Blacks No 15 three years ago.

The All Blacks coach has decided to stick with the back three that played the last two tests against England in June, which means there's no room for Dagg in the squad of 23 to open the Rugby Championship against the Wallabies in Sydney on Saturday night.

With Smith at the back, Cory Jane retains his spot on the right wing and the outstanding Julian Savea is an automatic choice over on the other side.

Find-of-the-year Malakai Fekitoa gets the nod to cover the outside backs and midfield on the bench, while prop Charlie Faumuina was a late withdrawal from the reserves because of illness.

Hansen's fullback call is not quite of Kurtley Beale-at-10 proportions, but it comes as a surprise to those who deal with him regularly, and understand the loyalty he has to players who have performed so well for him in the past.

Dagg very much falls into that category, having started at No 15 for 13 of last year's 14 tests - all won by the All Blacks - and also 13 of the 14 played in 2012, where the New Zealanders were beaten just once.

On top of that, Hansen is fond of quoting a maxim when it comes to All Black selection that players do not lose ground while they're injured. In this case, the Crusaders fullback would very much seem to be the exception.

Dagg played only the first test of the England series, won 3-0 by the All Blacks with increasingly authoritative performances, before being excused to rehab a knee that was restricting both his kicking and stepping.

But the 26-year-old had shown positive signs since returning to the Crusaders for the business end of Super Rugby, playing with a lot more freedom than he had been pre-June.

He had shown flashes of his brilliant best as the red and blacks won through to the final, and the presumption was he'd be returned at No 15, with Smith shifted back to the right wing where he'd been so effective for the All Blacks last year.

But like his opposite number who named Beale to start at No 10 ahead of Bernard Foley, Hansen has sprung a surprise that shows that he's prepared to think outside the square a little.

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To be fair, Smith's form at fullback, both for the Highlanders and All Blacks, had been exceptional. The 28-year-old was near faultless in a match-winning turn against England in Dunedin, and followed it up with another standout display in Hamilton, prompting a number of critics to rate the 29-cap Dunedinite the best fullback in the game.

"While we have been very happy with Israel Dagg's performances at 15, Ben has come in and raised the bar to another level," Hansen said.  

"The challenge for Israel now is to get his performances - when he gets the opportunity - to an even higher level."

The remainder of the All Blacks starting XV, which features just two changes to the side that ran out in Hamilton, is as predicted as they shoot for a record 18th consecutive test victory.

Veteran Conrad Smith returns from his fractured thumb to continue world's rugby's longest serving midfield partnership, while Wyatt Crockett slots in at loosehead prop as Tony Woodcock takes the rest of the year off to repair his shoulder.

On the bench Steven Luatua and Sam Cane have been chosen to cover second row and the loose, with the well-performed Liam Messam given the match off. Promising Blues lock Patrick Tuipulotu was one of three players not considered because of injury.

Hansen said Messam, who has had a massive workload this year, would benefit from an extra week off.

"He will come back in contention for selection next week," Hansen explained.

The All Blacks fly into Sydney today for their final preparations. Also travelling as cover for the matchday 23 are backs Dagg, Colin Slade and Tawera Kerr-Barlow; and forwards Jeremy Thrush, Nathan Harris and Kane Hames. Charles Piutau has been released to play ITM Cup for Auckland this weekend.

All Blacks: Ben Smith, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (captain), Jerome Kaino, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Wyatt Crockett. Reserves: Keven Mealamu, Ben Franks, Joe Moody, Steven Luatua, Sam Cane, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Malakai Fekitoa.

- Stuff

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