Robson: Hansen misses midfield opportunity

03:14, Jun 20 2013
All Blacks training
Captain Kieran Read goes high over Ofa Tu'ungafasi, who was brought in for training help.
All Blacks training
New caps Steven Luatua and Francis Saili join Ma'a Nonu on a warm-up run.
All Blacks training
Sam Cane and Matt Todd run through a drill.
All Blacks training
Some of the backs keep warm with a run.
All Blacks training
Ben Afeaki and Tony Woodcock get some passing in.
All Blacks training
Victor Vito and Steven Luatua run through a drill.
All Blacks training
Steven Luatua and Brodie Retallick get ready for an innovative workout in the rain.
All Blacks training
Beauden Barrett warms up with fellow first five Aaron Cruden.
All Blacks training
The injured Dan Carter looks on during a wet All Blacks training.
All Blacks training
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen keeps covered up as the All Blacks train in a windy and wet Auckland.
All Blacks test preparations
Sam Cane, Aaron Cruden, Julian Savea and Francis Sail react to a kick during a light-hearted moment at the end of All Blacks training at Linfield Park in Christchurch.
All Blacks test preparations
Matt Todd is tackled by Ben Franks at All Blacks training at Linfield Park in Christchurch.
All Blacks test preparations
Piri Weepu at All Blacks training at Linfield Park in Christchurch.
All Blacks test preparations
Piri Weepu shares a joke with All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster at training at Linfield Park in Christchurch.
All Blacks test preparations
Francis Saili practises his kicking at All Blacks training at Linfield Park in Christchurch.
All Blacks test preparations
Dan Carter enjoys himself at All Blacks training at Linfield Park in Christchurch.
All Blacks test preparations
Kieran Read surveys the scene at All Blacks training at Linfield Park in Christchurch.
All Blacks test preparations
The All Blacks get in some scrum practice at training at Linfield Park in Christchurch.
All Blacks test preparations
Israel Dagg at All Blacks training at Linfield Park in Christchurch.
Kieran Read
All Blacks captain Kieran Read plays with daughter Elle during the captain's run at AMI Stadium.
Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick
Sam Whitelock (left) and the man he replaced, Brodie Retallick.
Brodie Retallick
Brodie Retallick gets worked on by the All Blacks physio during a training session on Thursday.
Ma'a Nonu
Ma'a Nonu shares a joke with a team-mate during the captain's run.
Matt Todd and Wyatt Crockett
Matt Todd (left) and Wyatt Crockett play with Crockett's kids at AMI Stadium.
Kieran Read Crockett
Kieran Read with his two daughters Eden (left) and Elle during the All Blacks' final training.
Sam Whitelock
Sam Whitelock participates in the All Blacks captain's run, as (from left) Brodie Retallick, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock and Owen Franks watch.
All Blacks prepare for France
The All Blacks front row gets in some scrum practice in New Plymouth ahead of the last test with France.
All Blacks prepare for France
Halfback Aaron Smith gets in some passing practice in New Plymouth.
All Blacks prepare for France
Blues backrow Steven Luatua looks set to make his All Blacks debut against France this weekend after being named on the bench.
All Blacks prepare for France
Dan Carter training at Yarrow Stadium in New Plymouth ahead of the All Blacks' last test with France.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen continues to be bold, but it's hard not to feel a midfield opportunity will be lost in New Plymouth.

Hansen has made five changes to his starting XV for the third test against France, one due to a calf injury to hooker Dane Coles.

Dan Carter predictably returns from injury at first five eighth to partner Piri Weepu in the halves, while Rene Ranger slams down the door to start on the left wing.

There are two changes in the pack where Andrew Hore comes in for Coles and Victor Vito starts at blindside in place of Liam Messam, who gets a well-earned week off along with Aaron Smith, Aaron Cruden and Julian Savea.

Hansen's investment in the future continues with Steven Luatua, Charles Piutau, Matt Todd and Tawera Kerr-Barlow appearing alongside veteran Keven Mealamu on a reshuffled reserves bench.

Which is all hard to fault, but what about the midfield?

Conrad Smith's selection at centre will be popular around Taranaki where he is a cult hero for good reason.

But wouldn't the All Blacks have gained more by having a look at Ben Smith, or even Rene Ranger as a midfield alternative?

At present there are no established test options at second five-eighth or centre outside of Ma'a Nonu and Smith.

With France dispatched 30-0 in Christchurch and racked by injuries Hansen has the perfect chance to get a peak at life without the old-firm.

Questioning Hansen's selections is a bit like critiquing the Mona Lisa, but the midfield seems slightly out of whack with current policy.

Coles has proved himself as a genuine option at hooker and Cruden confirmed (again) he is a true test quality pivot behind Carter.

Openside Sam Cane has provided a solid insurance behind Richie McCaw, and it appears Todd will be added to the policy.

Luatua, who will cover lock and blindside, and Piutau hint at big futures. Hansen's hunches aren't often far off the mark.

But what of the midfield, and centre in particular?

Carter has worn the All Blacks' No 12 jersey before, but nobody has any extended test experience at No 13.

Ben Smith has started just one of his 14 tests at centre, against Scotland at Murrayfield during last year's end of year tour.

Other than that his midfield experience has been limited to a handful of cameos as a replacement.

And Ranger, who played his way into the squad as a centre with the Blues this season, has had just 25 minutes in the midfield, against Wales in 2010.

One may get some midfield game time in New Plymouth, but a start would have provided more value.

An injury to either Nonu or Conrad Smith during the final three weeks of Super Rugby could leave the All Blacks vulnerable ahead of the opening Rugby Championship match against Australia.

Conrad Smith said earlier this week of a possible spell: "I can understand that logic. It would be tough to take but I'd understand. You've got to respect their decision. I trust them."

But he also added he'd prefer not to miss any tests before taking his sabbatical at the end of the year.

Perhaps his enthusiasm and importance to the squad saw a midfield mix-up postponed. Ranger's selection may also have played a part, his unpredictable brilliance on the wing balanced by having Mr Consistent inside him.

And there is of course Ben Smith's own form on the wing where he has been simply brilliant in the opening two tests.

Whatever the case, Hansen's latest line up is otherwise another pleasing mix of the present and the future.


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: Keven Mealamu, Ben Franks, Tony Woodcock, Steven Luatua, Matt Todd, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Beauden Barrett, Charles Piutau. 

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Ben Smith
JACK OF ALL TRADES: Ben Smith has been suggested as a possible replacement for Conrad Smith, but Steve Hansen has opted not to test him at centre.

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