All Blacks set for mix up ahead of third test
LIAM NAPIER IN NEW PLYMOUTH
Throw in a pinch of youth. Add a dash of excitement. Mix in some recalled experience. That could be the recipe for the All Blacks in New Plymouth this week.
Head baker, or as he's more commonly known, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, indicated yesterday there may be a rethink with Ben Smith's experiment in the midfield, but the time has come to unleash Rene Ranger on the French.
Two irresistible cameos from the bench must be rewarded with a start. From knocking out opponents to sparking counter attacks, the Blues' Action Man has been lethal.
"When Rene Ranger is calling for the ball you want to give it to him," Beauden Barrett highlighted yesterday.
Later this year Ranger may be off to France but the third test is the here-and-now. He needs a chance to show his explosive talents on the wing for 80 - not 20 - minutes. And with Hansen suggesting the old firm of locally-raised Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu are now likely to be retained, Ranger's potential selection could come at the expense of either Julian Savea or Ben Smith. Ranger for Savea would be replacing power with power.
With Dan Carter expected to return from a broken hand, Piri Weepu may also be given a start.
Timing hasn't been on Weepu's side. He was in line to wear the No 9 in the first test at Eden Park - ironically alongside Carter - before taking a nasty head knock in Dunedin. Since then he's been forced to sit in the stands and on the bench; watching Aaron Smith re-establish his growing reputation. It must have been difficult.
Weepu made great strides with his weight and form this year. He's been influential for the Blues. His combination with Carter is not foreign, either. It carries heavyweight experience.
Naturally Weepu is itching for a start, though he admitted after training yesterday the All Blacks' speed of play left him blowing last week.
"It will be pretty special. Hopefully if I do get the nod I make the most of that," he said. "The speed of this is a lot faster than it has been in Super Rugby. It's another step up. I had a taste of it at the weekend. It's fair to say I started chasing after Beauden Barrett but I didn't get out of first gear. You could tell how quick the game was."
Drastic alterations to the forward pack would surprise when the team is named tomorrow. Dane Coles has impressed at hooker, likewise Sam Cane at openside flanker. The budding duo would benefit from consistent game-time.
"Everyone wants to start," Cane said. "It doesn't matter if you've started one or two or 20 in a row you want to keep going."
Victor Vito is the obvious contender for promotion after his vigorous impact in Christchurch. Liam Messam has shouldered a huge work-load for the Chiefs this season and could be spelled. The pair have been hard to separate, sharing a long-held battle for the No 6 jersey. Messam edged ahead last year but Hansen may feel Vito deserves a chance to make a statement in the final test before the Rugby Championship.
On the bench this may be a prime opportunity to cap some of the remaining rookies. Blues fullback Charles Piutau and blindside flanker Steven Luatua appear the most likely candidates to make their debuts at Yarrow Stadium.
Both have been hard to miss this season. With the series wrapped up now may be the prefect time to blood them.
Weepu has vivid memories of his 2004 debut in Cardiff. He was overwhelmed by emotion and reckons his Blues team-mates will encounter similar experiences this weekend.
"I definitely think they will be emotional," Weepu said. "They're pretty quiet some of those Pacific Island boys. They keep to themselves a bit. If they do get their chance I'm sure there will be some tears flowing. They'll be like myself. Not knowing whether to cry or scream."
Who was the best-performed All Blacks forward on the northern tour?