Revamped All Blacks retain touch of experience
LIAM NAPIER IN EDINBURGH
Midfield, halfback, and the loose-forward mix are the major talking points from the All Blacks team to play Scotland in Edinburgh on Monday (NZT).
In a team featuring 10 starting changes and a further seven on the expanded eight-man bench, Highlanders duo Tamati Ellison and Ben Smith are the most notable additions to the new-look, and slightly lightweight, midfield.
Other interesting selections include Victor Vito's move to No 8, with Kieran Read being rested.
Read is expected to take over the captaincy duties from Richie McCaw in Rome next week.
Adam Thomson's start at blindside flanker is sure to cause wide-spread debate with his future still undecided and trim halfback Piri Weepu has been given an early chance to revive his career inside Dan Carter.
There is also a fully revamped front-row. Wyatt Crockett is champing at the bit for his start. The Crusaders loose-head prop will be partnered by Andrew Hore and Owen Franks.
Both rookies - halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow and hooker Dane Coles - are also in line to make their test debuts from the bench, where they'll be joined by veteran lock Ali Williams at Murrayfield.
Smith's promotion at centre is not entirely surprising given he played there for a large chunk of the second-half in the Brisbane draw. There is also a growing need to find a genuine back-up to Mr Consistent Conrad Smith.
It is, however, surprising All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has excluded both Ma'a Nonu, who is on the bench, and Hurricanes captain Smith from the starting line-up. One of the experienced midfielders could have teamed up with either of the Highlanders utilities to give the side better balance.
"We thought about it but we thought this was a better option," Hansen said.
"We think there's a bit of a combination there from the Highlanders. We're looking to the future. Ma'a and Conrad are probably going to play later in this series. This is a combination that's going to spend a lot of time together in both the Highlanders and maybe future All Black teams."
Weepu was given a stern message to shape up after an underwhelming Rugby Championship and if the Blues halfback's performance can match his appearance he should take this career-defining chance.
"We gave him some pretty strong and clear guidelines before we picked the team and he's met those, hence why we're seeing a sharper and fitter looking Piri. Long may it last," Hansen said.
Vito started this season as the one of the favoured No 6 options but has since fallen behind Liam Messam.
Hansen wants to see him step up at the back of the scrum in what could potentially be a long-term move.
"He's always been a back-up to Kieran at No 8. He's the logical guy in this game. Clearly it's a big game for him and Adam Thomson. Both of them are being given an opportunity to really stamp themselves on this contest. It will be interesting to see how they go," Hansen said.
Thomson spoken yesterday about his myriad of options but Hansen continues to be unfazed by his uncertain future plans, although the coach was unsure how the flanker's start would be perceived by the public.
"I'm not sure," Hansen said. "The mere fact that his future is up in the air says that he could still be playing in New Zealand. Our job is to pick the best people and he is one of the best so we've picked him."
Another point of interest is Taranaki and Hurricanes first five-eighth Beauden Barrett being given the responsibilities of covering fullback Israel Dagg, and Julian Savea also returns to the left wing to continue his on-going rotation with Hosea Gear.
While it appears the team has been altered drastically, the reality is with Carter, McCaw, Hore, Franks, Sam Whitelock, Dagg and Cory Jane, the All Blacks retain an experienced core that should prove too much for the Scots.
New Zealand: Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Ben Smith, Tamati Ellison, Julian Savea, Daniel Carter, Piri Weepu. Victor Vito, Richie McCaw (c), Adam Thomson, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Andrew Hore, Wyatt Crockett. Reserves: Dane Coles, Tony Woodcock, Ben Franks, Ali Williams, Sam Cane, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Beauden Barrett, Ma'a Nonu
Who was the best-performed All Blacks forward on the northern tour?