Conrad Smith to make All Blacks return
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has confirmed veteran centre Conrad Smith will be back in the No 13 jersey for the Rugby Championship test against Argentina in Wellington in a fortnight.
The positive news on the injured midfielder, recovering from a detached retina, is timely as the All Blacks have now seen the last of backline sensation Sonny Bill Williams who moves on to Japan, for a short stint, before he returns to the NRL in Australia.
Williams was co-opted to fill in for Smith for the first two Bledisloe Cup tests of the expanded four-nation competition, and he departed on a high note with a man-of-the-match display in Saturday night's 22-0 shutout of the Wallabies at Eden Park, last night.
That result, which sees the All Blacks' iron grip over the Australians maintained, puts the New Zealanders in a strong position at the top of the Rugby Championship standings.
South Africa's 16-16 draw against the Pumas in Mendoza, today, saw them lose valuable ground on Hansen's world champions.
Hansen conceded that Williams, in the form he's in, would be a significant loss for the All Blacks but he was grateful to have a player as experienced and classy as the 58-test Smith to slot back in.
Loosehead prop Tony Woodcock is also expected to be fully recovered from his rib problems in time to face the daunting Pumas pack in Wellington.
"We always knew that was the timetable for Conrad's return, and obviously with Sonny going it's not a bad swap," said Hansen
He also confirmed that a slight shoulder knock for lock Luka Romano was the only injury worry out of Saturday night's Bledisloe clincher in Auckland.
Hansen said Smith would not be asked to run out for Wellington next weekend to either prove or work on his fitness.
"We're confident in his fitness, and he's proven before he can come straight back in and do the job, and that's what we'll be doing," said the coach who has now won his first five tests in the top job.
But Hansen made it clear he felt the All Blacks were still very much a work in progress, even though the Wallabies said after the game on Saturday night that while they played at the pace they are, no side in the game can live with them.
"We're trying to play a game that's got high intensity and high accuracy, and we just haven't quite managed the high accuracy yet," said Hansen after his side left three or four tries on the park against an outgunned Wallabies outfit.
"It does ask a lot of questions of the opposition. We know we're a fit side, but it means we have to be effective as ball-carriers, win the collisions and make sure we get that quick ball. There's permutations right across the park in how we want to play and we've just got to get better and more accurate."
Hansen also reiterated a theme from the All Blacks camp when he spoke about the reluctant departure of Williams who's quickly become one of the team's key players.
"He knows he's most welcome to come back when he's ready," said Hansen.
"There's no point pushing the envelope so to speak, but I don't really think in his heart of hearts he wants to go.
"But he's going so we'll send him off with our blessing. For me the best part is the guy's gone to another level in his play. There were a lot of people who have knocked him and I think now they've realised just how good he is. That's pleasing because he didn't deserve to be knocked."
Asked if Williams had become a "special case", Hansen chose to use different words.
"He's certainly a special athlete. Special athletes can do special things. That doesn't mean they get treated any differently, but he's certainly a special athlete."
Hansen also said the Pumas had shown in gritty draw against the Boks, that they'll bring a pretty familiar challenge to the All Blacks in the capital.
"They're going to be physical up front, and they'll play that bash game they played last night. It was like two big rhino bulls going at each other and hopefully they took a fair bit out of each other..
"I cant imagine them wanting to play an expansive game. They're more comfortable using their forwards and that's what we'll expect."
A number of All Blacks will play for their provincial teams in the upcoming round of the ITM Cup, they are:
Tuesday 28 August
Wellington (Julian Savea and Victor Vito) v Hawke's Bay, Wellington
Wednesday 29 August
Auckland (Charlie Faumuina and Piri Weepu) v Canterbury, Christchurch
Thursday 30 August
Bay of Plenty (Sam Cane and Brodie Retallick) v Otago (Tamati Ellison and Adam Thomson), Rotorua
Saturday 1 September
Canterbury (Wyatt Crockett) v North Harbour, Christchurch
Taranaki (Andrew Hore) v Tasman, New Plymouth
- © Fairfax NZ News
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