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Francis Saili's nervous wait is almost over.
The Blues second five-eighth will make his All Blacks debut, outside fit-again pivot Dan Carter, against Argentina in Hamilton on Saturday.
Saili has been in the All Blacks since June but was the only player not required during the three test sweep of France. While naturally gifted, the 22-year-old is still prone to the odd mistake which can be risky at test level. Over the last three months he has been forced to sit back and be patient. Now his time has, finally, come. He will be the 17th new All Black introduced to international rugby over the past two years.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen decided Ma'a Nonu's troublesome ankle needs a rest and Saili has got the nod over Canterbury's wider squad member Ryan Crotty, who has been released along with Counties Manukau wing Frank Halai and Wellington loose-forward Brad Shield for their respective NPC teams.
"With Ma'a's on-going niggly ankle we have taken the opportunity to rest him and introduce Francis to international rugby and we want to congratulate him on his selection," Hansen said. "We have complete faith in his ability to do the job. He is a very exciting, young player who has a multi-talented skill set that should suit test rugby."
Carter has recovered from a problematic calf injury which kept him out of successive victories over the Wallabies to take over the playmaking duties from Crusaders team-mate Tom Taylor. In just his second test of the year, Carter links with halfback Aaron Smith for the first time in nine months. Beauden Barrett is also back to provide cover from the bench, where he replaces Colin Slade, after also overcoming a calf complaint.
"It's also pleasing to see the return of both Dan and Beauden from their enforced injury layoffs," Hansen said. "Their experience and skill sets will obviously be a great advantage to the All Blacks."
Along with centre Conrad Smith, Carter's cool head in his 96th test will be crucial to ensuring Saili has a smooth debut. Since Sonny Bill Williams' departure, New Zealand rugby has lacked depth at No 12. Saili now gets the chance to prove he can handle the step up.
This is the chance tighthead prop Charlie Faumuina has been waiting for, too. With Owen Franks succumbing to a groin injury Faumuina will play his 10th test but just his third start and first for 11 months.
Liam Messam's calf injury sees Steven Luatua retain the No 6 jersey and Hansen has resisted the urge to hand hooker Dane Coles a start. The only other change comes in the reserves where prop Ben Franks' versatility earns him promotion.
The All Blacks have not lost to the Argentina in 16 tests since 1985, winning 15 and drawing once. The visitors are also yet to record a victory in the Rugby Championship, coming off an away shellacking and much-improved home defeat to the Springboks. Hansen expects the Pumas to bring their usual physicality and passion to Saturday's clash.
"We are expecting a very physical encounter but also one that will see them use the flair and talent of their backline," he said.
"It is a challenge that we are looking forward to and we are also looking forward to playing in Hamilton. As always, we have put a huge focus on our preparation and we know that anything less will not be good enough to get the performance that we are looking for."
All Blacks: Tony Woodcock, Andrew Hore, Charlie Faumuina, Brodie Retallick, Samuel Whitelock, Steven Luatua, Richie McCaw (c), Kieran Read, Aaron Smith, Daniel Carter, Julian Savea, Francis Saili, Conrad Smith, Ben Smith, Israel Dagg. Reserves: . Dane Coles, Wyatt Crockett, Ben Franks, Jeremy Thrush, Sam Cane, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Beauden Barrett, Charles Piutau.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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