Hansen's bench is far from clear-cut

MAN OF INFLUENCE: All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.
MAN OF INFLUENCE: All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.

Steve Hansen won't be losing any sleep over the makeup of his starting XV to take on the Wallabies on Saturday night in Sydney - but the bench could have the All Blacks coach tossing and turning just a little.

The cracked bone in Dan Carter's leg has taken away arguably the main selection debate, with Aaron Cruden now a certainty to start at No 10 with Beauden Barrett in his customary spot on the bench.

There will be mild interest around the makeup of the back three, given the form of Ben Smith at fullback against England, an eye-catching last test outing on the right wing from Cory Jane and the return to full fitness of one of the finds of last season, Charles Piutau.

CHOICES TO MAKE: All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.
CHOICES TO MAKE: All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.

But it would be a major surprise if Hansen did not restore Israel Dagg to fullback on the back of some solid form in that spot for the Crusaders, with Smith reverting to the right wing he occupied for much of last year and Julian Savea now an automatic selection as the blockbusting left wing option.

There are many in New Zealand who believe Ben Smith should wear the No 15 jersey as the premier fullback in the game, but Hansen may not yet be ready to make that judgment. All Blacks coaches are notoriously loyal, Dagg has served him exceedingly well and Smith is hardly a slouch on the right wing either.

That would be tough on Jane, and to a lesser extent Piutau, but both must bide their time, knowing they have to be ready when the chance comes.

The impressive return of Jerome Kaino should continue apace with selection at No 6 ahead of Liam Messam. Again that's hard on the Chiefs hard man, but Kaino's form has been so irrepressible since coming back from Japan, Hansen really has no choice.

The rest of the team picks itself, with Wyatt Crockett already anointed as loosehead prop in Tony Woodcock's absence, and ever improving hooker Dane Coles sure to be relishing the prospect of going against the Force's Nathan Charles in his run-on debut.

The bench, though, is not quite so clear-cut. Ben Franks, Charlie Faumuina and Keven Mealamu should provide the front-row backup, but after that it gets a little murky.

Does Hansen go for size or versatility in his second-row and loose forward coverage? And who best covers his outside back options?

It looks a straight choice between big Aucklander Patrick Tuipulotu and utility forward Steven Luatua as lock cover, while Liam Messam and Sam Cane are the loose forward options.

Luatua slightly hyper-extended an elbow in Friday's hitout in Albany but is expected to be fine, and much will depend on whether Hansen feels the need to have backup at No 7. If so, the pairing of Luatua and Cane would cover his bases. Otherwise Tuipulotu and Messam provide more in the way of grunt off the pine.

Outside back cover will be an interesting decision, with cover at No 12 the main concern. Malakai Fekitoa and Piutau are the probable contenders with their versatility.

Meanwhile, veteran centre Conrad Smith is shrugging off the hype around the supposed renaissance in Australian rugby. As far as he's concerned, nothing has really changed, for all the fuss around a certain Sydney-based team's success in Super Rugby.

"Although we've had some success the last few years it's never felt like there's been a big gap between the sides," Smith said. "It seems like we're saying the same things ahead of this test match each year.

"We're particularly wary of the strengths they possess and the attacking ability they show through their teams in Super Rugby. It's always a big test, and I know this time last year we were preparing the same way for the game over in Sydney.

"This will be more of the same - they've got some good results behind them now and it makes for a good contest."

The Wallabies are certainly due. They've won just two of their last 20 tests against the All Blacks and haven't supped out of the Bledisloe Cup since 2002. 

The Dominion Post