Young guns set to debut for the All Blacks
Of the five starting changes to the All Blacks to play France in New Plymouth on Saturday, Rene Ranger's promotion on the left wing will spark most interest.
A calf injury to hooker Dane Coles forced a late change last night, robbing the hooker of a third consecutive start. Andrew Hore takes over with Keven Mealamu coming on to the reserves.
There are sure to be nerves for Blues blindside flanker Steven Luatua, fullback Charles Piutau and Crusaders openside Matt Todd. All three are in line to make their test debuts at a sold-out Yarrow Stadium. Luatua and Piutau's introductions will be eagerly anticipated.
As expected, Dan Carter swaps the water boy duties for the boots to return from a broken hand which kept him out of the first two tests. The classy first five-eighth will form an experienced halves combinations with Piri Weepu, the halfback also making a comeback of sorts after sitting out the first test and coming off the bench in Christchurch.
Victor Vito is the other starting change at No.6. Liam Messam, first-five Aaron Cruden and halfback Aaron Smith have been given the week off. With Luatua in the reserves and Messam in the wings, Vito will be keen to leave a lasting impression in his first start of the series.
Experimentation in the midfield has been put on hold with the old firm of Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu retained. Ben Smith will again line up on the right wing though may see time at centre later in the match.
But it's Ranger who will send tongues wagging. The Blues utility has terrorised the French in two memorable cameos. Now he gets a chance to prove he can replicate those efforts for the full 80-minutes. It seems a harsh call on Julian Savea, who returned to form last week, but Ranger will create healthy competition before heading to France at the end of the year.
With the series wrapped up, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has been relatively conservative, resisting the urge to alternate his props. He also continues to make rookies earn test caps from the bench.
Todd's inclusion is the major surprise. He was called up as a late injury-replacement for fit-again lock Sam Whitelock but may now be given a chance to keep Sam Cane honest. It also means, of the six debutants in the 32-man squad, Blues second-five Francis Saili is the only player not to be selected.
Local favourite Beauden Barrett has been included as cover for Carter on the bench while Tawera Kerr-Barlow could play his second match of the series. Piutau is likely to replace Israel Dagg in the second-half and, with Jeremy Thrush left out, Luatua may be require at lock.
"While the series has been won, we certainly won't be underestimating the French in this final match," Hansen said. "We have put a full stop in last weekend's performance and expecting further improvement from ourselves, and another hard, physical contest from the French.
"However, we are committed to continue building the depth in our squad and introducing new players to test match rugby, hence why we have selected the team we have."
ALL BLACKS: Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Rene Ranger, Dan Carter, Piri Weepu, Kieran Read (C), Sam Cane, Victor Vito, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Andrew Hore, Wyatt Crockett. Reserves: Ben Franks, Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu, Steven Luatua, Matt Todd, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Beauden Barrett, Charles Piutau