Robson: Hansen misses midfield opportunity

TOBY ROBSON
Last updated 05:02 20/06/2013
Ben Smith
DAVID HALLETT/Fairfax NZ
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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OPINION: 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."

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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. 

- The Dominion Post

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