All Blacks attack coach Ian Foster has heralded the return of centre Conrad Smith and confirmed he will be paired with Ma'a Nonu in the midfield against Argentina on Saturday.
However, Foster has also sounded a warning to his backs that the Pumas defence will be a "very tough nut to crack" at Westpac Stadium.
"It's great to have him back," Foster said today of Smith's return to the fold after missing the first two tests of the Rugby Championship following eye surgery.
"He's a quality player. As I've said earlier I think he was the best player in the country during Super Rugby."
The All Blacks side won't be named til Thursday, but Foster made it clear the midfield combination was not up for debate after a wet, but energetic training at Rugby League Park today.
"He [Smith] brings lots of leadership, he brings a lot of experience to the decision making part of the game, particularly in the backs.
"He'll be good for that and particularly I think him and Ma'a getting back together [in the midfield] after a while could be interesting."
The Nonu-Smith combination has been on hold so far this season for a variety of reasons.
Nonu was rested during the June series against Ireland with Sonny Bill Williams wearing the number 12 jersey before shifting out to centre for the two Bledisloe Cup matches against Australia.
Smith skipped those two tests due after his retina was detached during the Hurricanes final match of the Super Rugby season on July 13.
Foster said he had no issues with Smith's match fitness despite the centre having not played for two months.
And he rejected the suggestion Argentina would not match the All Blacks in the backs.
"They will certainly challenge us. Defensively they have been a hard nut to break. If you look back at the World Cup last year and their games this year they have been a very strong defensive team," he said.
"Their backs are certainly very clued up in that area. In attack they probably have a limited formula, but they still try to use the ball and if we give them too many soft opportunities we'll have to be on our game."
The return to the Nonu-Smith midfield highlights the absence of Williams, who is playing in Japan.
Williams' Chiefs teammate, Aaron Cruden, said the big second five-eighth would be missed, but didn't believe his absence would have a detrimental effect.
"It's an adjustment of course because he's not there, but you have a world class player in Ma'a Nonu taking back his 12 jersey, so it should be a pretty smooth transition.
"I know Ma'a is really excited about the opportunity he's going to get this weekend, especially that combination with Conrad Smith potentially being reformed.
"The good thing about this team is all the combinations that could potentially play together get a good amount of training time together and form good relationships.
"That's the best thing about it no matter who is out on the field you know they are going to go out and do their jobs."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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