Changes likely as Hansen hunts for successors
Shifting Ben Smith to centre seems a little absurd on current form, but All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has earned the right to peak into the future in New Plymouth.
The present is in good hands with the Dave Gallaher Cup polished up and ready to take its place in the New Zealand Rugby Union's trophy cabinet after Saturday's 30-0 drubbing of France.
Hansen has earned the luxury of unfurling another page of the plan he hopes will set the foundations for a run at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
"Obviously the series has been won and we've talked about taking risks so perhaps we have the opportunity to make some changes," he said when asked if he would make changes for the third test. "I wouldn't say right now we will make a lot, but we will look at the long term plan as well as the short term plan."
On form, the fifteen men who started in Christchurch would be automatic selections after a collective performance that was difficult to fault.
Dane Coles has eased concerns over depth at hooker, Sam Cane has progressed at openside and Aaron Cruden produced a world class performance at first five-eighth.
However, the question of centre has not progressed, with Conrad Smith a beacon of consistent class, but in a position devoid of a proven test alternative.
The 31-year-old may or may not escape injury through the Rugby Championship, but Hansen will not want to wait for a big test to find out if anyone else is up to a job that must be filled by year's end when his incumbent activates his sabbatical.
Ben Smith has long been talked of as a possible option and this year any doubts about his skill-set have been well and truly obliterated.
Smith's graduation as a test incumbent has been confirmed in emphatic fashion over the first two tests against France albeit on the wing.
With Rene Ranger commanding an extended look out wide and Israel Dagg finally thriving on a confidence kick at fullback, the stage is set for Ben Smith to try on the No 13 jersey for size.
A similar issue is in play at second five eighth, but Ma'a Nonu is not known as "Rock" without reason. Dan Carter can cover 12, presumably from his starting role at first five-eighth, while the Francis Saili project continues in the background.
The most difficult part of a change at centre could prizing the jersey off Conrad Smith, who was buzzing at full time and would dearly love to start in his home town of New Plymouth.
He believes something special is building and a tad earlier than he thought possible a few short weeks ago.
"That's a lot of credit to the management. They took a bit of a gamble trying to change so many things, but I think you will now see the benefits through the year," he said. "We thought it might mean for the first few games things are a bit tough, but in the long run we have a game that's not very predictable and we will reap benefits for the whole year rather than having a game everyone can read."
Those changes included some tweaks to the defensive system introduced by defence coach Aussie McLean and, during the second test the All Blacks showed they can be as deadly via a kicking plan as with the ball in hand.
And in an odd way, Smith suggested the side's rapid growth may have been assisted by the absence of Carter and skipper Richie McCaw.
"It's meant a lot of guys have had to step up and not just on the field. Also in their roles off the field, and it's highlighted a strength of New Zealand rugby. It shows we can get through without those guys. When they come back we'll certainly be in pretty good shape."
Even better if an alternative centre puts his hand up in New Plymouth.
The Dominion Post