Lions tour: All Blacks elevate Rieko Ioane for surprise first test start on wing
At just 20, Auckland prodigy Rieko Ioane has been handed the keys to the All Blacks kingdom.
The Blues and New Zealand Maori youngster has been named for a shock start on the left wing in the opening test against the British and Irish Lions at Eden Park on Saturday night, replacing the established Julian Savea in a decision that will be the major talking point around the water-coolers of New Zealand.
The Lions have now also named their team (see below).
It is a huge responsibility for one so tender in years and experience (this will be just his third test, and his first start). But at the same time it is also a massive opportunity for Ioane to prove he can handle one of the biggest occasions there is in international rugby.
It is also a big call from head coach Steve Hansen who has somewhat of a sixth sense about these things. He doesn't often get these hunch-type selections wrong, and it would not surprise to see Ioane reward Hansen with a strong performance on his sold-out home ground.
Ioane, who has made a quick elevation from his apprentice status on last November's tour, replaces the 53-cap Savea in one of three changes to the All Blacks lineup from that which ran in 12 tries in that 78-0 victory over Samoa last Friday night.
The other two are a lot more predictable: the return, from a rib injury, of Ryan Crotty to the All Black midfield and the well-telegraphed comeback from his fractured thumb of skipper Kieran Read.
The heady, steady Crotty replaces Anton Lienert-Brown at centre, where he will start just his third test alongside Sonny Bill Williams. The other two were slightly less high-stakes affairs, against the USA in Chicago in 2014 and Samoa in Apia in 2015.
Read was always going to play. The 97-test, world-class No 8 has had a troubled year, making a belated start to Super Rugby after off-season wrist surgery, and then lasting just three games before fracturing his thumb against the Cheetahs on April 30.
Since then he has set himself to make it back for this very test. He was close to making an appearance against the Samoans; this week his presence at the heart of the All Blacks was never in doubt.
Ioane's, though, was. This will be his third meeting with the Lions on this tour, after an outstanding display in the Blues' 22-16 victory on Eden Park, and a not-so-impressive one for the Maori in their 32-10 defeat in Rotorua last Saturday.
But Hansen clearly likes the big wing's proven ability to beat defenders, and his solidity under the high ball. "His outstanding form throughout the season, including against the Lions, has earned him his start," he said.
The midfield decision would have been a tight one.
Crotty has been nursing a rib cartilage problem since the Crusaders' last-gasp June 3 victory over the Highlanders in Christchurch, and, like Read, had nothing in the way of margin for error to make it back for this test.
Then there was the form of Williams and Lienert-Brown against Samoa. They hardly put a foot wrong as the All Black backs carved up on a regular basis
But with decision-making paramount for the All Blacks backs against that Lions rush defence, Crotty's experience (26 tests since 2013, but only two at No 13) and reputation as a smart operator have won him the nod.
Assistant coach Ian Foster said Crotty was "a very smart rugby player who has never let us down in whatever role we've given him". Added Hansen: "Ryan is a heady player, a good talker, and when you're under immense pressure you need somebody like that."
The remainder of the All Blacks lineup more or less picked itself. Ardie Savea moves back to that dynamic bench unit to allow for Read's return, Israel Dagg retains his right wing spot on the back of a strong showing against Samoa (and an expected high-ball blitz) and Aaron Smith continues to hold out the challenge of TJ Perenara at halfback.
There was originally a bracket at backup first five-eighth, but on Thursday night All Blacks management confirmed that Aaron Cruden, who had been under an injury cloud with ligament trouble, had won the nod over Lima Sopoaga for the No 22 jersey.
"This was a really tough team to pick because there were a number of players in great form vying for positions," added Hansen. "There's a real understanding that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
The All Blacks coach also highlighted the extent of the challenge coming his team's way as they look to continue a 23-year, 39-test unbeaten run on Eden Park.
"We know this is a very good Lions team; probably one of the best to have toured here. It'll be a battle of contrasting styles. It'll be a physical test but, just as importantly, it will be a mental test."
His selections certainly reflect that.
All Blacks: Ben Smith, Israel Dagg, Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read (c), Sam Cane, Jerome Kaino, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody. Reserves: Nathan Harris, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Scott Barrett, Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara, Aaron Cruden, Anton Lienert-Brown
Lions: Liam Williams, Anthony Watson, Jonathan Davies, Ben Te'o, Elliot Daly, Owen Farrell, Conor Murray, Taulupe Faletau, Sean O'Brien, Peter O'Mahony (captain), George Kruis, Alun Wyn Jones, Tadhg Furlong, Jamie George, Mako Vunipola. Reserves: Ken Owens, Jack McGrath, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Sam Warburton, Rhys Webb, Johnny Sexton, Leigh Halfpenny