Steve Hansen keeping faith with 'A' team

LIAM NAPIER IN ROME
Last updated 12:08 18/11/2012
Piri Weepu
Getty Images
ON THE CHARGE: Piri Weepu’s decision-making during the test against Scotland at the weekend was praised by the All Blacks coaches.

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Steve Hansen's two-week trial has not altered his premier All Blacks line-up.

Rotating all 32 players in the first two European tour matches against Scotland and Italy was a valuable exercise to give fringe players rare chances to stake their claims.

While Victor Vito played strongly at No 8, halfback Piri Weepu produced a well overdue breakout performance and Beauden Barrett handled being thrown in at fullback, no bolters are likely to force their way in to the "A" team and shake up what has worked for Hansen in this unbeaten season.

Using two separate starting sides in Edinburgh and Rome was a radical shift in selection policy and there are fears some first-string combinations might be rusty next week.

Ultimately, wide-sweeping changes served a purpose without creating many genuine selection headaches for the business end of the tour.

Hansen doesn't react to public opinion - he's proved that with unrelenting faith in Weepu and veteran lock Ali Williams.

Reverting back to those used consistently throughout the Rugby Championship for next week's clash with Warren Gatland's Welsh in Cardiff may be viewed as a tad conservative, but results are paramount in Hansen's mind.

"Most of us could pick the team that's going to play against Wales," Hansen said. "There's been a hard core of people who have played most of the tests this season. I can't see that changing.

"There's been some consistency in our selection and in all probability that will happen again.

"There's no reason for that to change because the people are playing well. As long as this group come out and perform, I wouldn't expect too many changes."

Left wing, hooker and, possibly, halfback are the only positions understood to be up for grabs, barring any major injuries in this morning's test against the Azzurri.

Julian Savea is thought to have the inside running for the left wing spot but Hosea Gear could have edged ahead with a blinder at Stadio Olimpico.

At halfback, Weepu revived his career against the Scots, but it is doubtful he has done enough to unseat incumbent No 9 Aaron Smith, who has been an integral part of the All Blacks' high-tempo style this year.

Weepu has finally lifted his game to put pressure on Smith for the first time in his short but stellar test career.

"Piri has laid down the challenge," Hansen said. "He's played particularly well. I know that Aaron was pretty disappointed with his performance in Brisbane. We saw the response from Dan Carter. His performance in Brisbane was pretty average too. As a combination they were poor.

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"DC has come back to how he can be. I'm sure Aaron will be itching to get out there and show us what he's capable of. We know he's capable of a lot better."

It is likely the hooking duties will be shared between Andrew Hore and Keven Mealamu, although Dane Coles' combative nature has impressed.

With fullback Israel Dagg and utility Ben Smith expected to recover in time to face the Welsh, ligament damage to Tamati Ellison's foot is the only ongoing injury concern.

The makeup of the bench could be the real point of interest, with Barrett and Coles pushing hard for inclusion.

After suffering a shock 26-12 loss to Argentina last week, Wales got themselves into even greater trouble when they lost 26-19 to Samoa yesterday.

Gatland's men present the first true test of the tour for the All Blacks.

In many respects the tourists' challenge starts now.

Possible starting team: Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea, Dan Carter, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (c), Liam Messam, Luke Romano, Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock

- Sunday News

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