Kane Hames surprise selection to prop up All Blacks against gnarly Boks
Big-time risk or calculated move? Either way, we are about to get a cast-iron indication whether Tasman prop Kane Hames is as good as Steve Hansen suspects he is.
Life is about to get suddenly very real for Hames, who not so very long ago did not even merit a full Super Rugby contract and now will run out for his first test start at loosehead prop for the All Blacks. Against the Springboks, no less.
The 29-year-old late bloomer has been whistled up from the provincial fields of Mitre 10 Cup rugby straight into the All Blacks' starting XV in the one major surprise in Hansen's match-day 23 to face the Springboks in Saturday night's Rugby Championship clash in Albany.
The other two notable selections are the return of Liam Squire to the No 6 jersey in the wake of a barnstorming performance from Vaea Fifita there against Argentina in New Plymouth last Saturday; and the retention of Nehe Milner-Skudder on the wing, where he moves to the right side to replace Israel Dagg.
Both Fifita (shoulder) and Dagg (knee) are injured, and were not considered to line up against the Boks.
All told there are eight changes (seven personnel, one positional) from the XV that ran on to start the 39-22 victory over Argentina in New Plymouth last Saturday, with Hansen pretty much returning to his best available lineup for the first test of the year against the Boks.
But the decision to start Hames is one few would have seen coming. The injury replacement for Joe Moody (dislocated shoulder) has played two previous tests in similar circumstances, against the Wallabies in Sydney in 2016, and against the same opponents just a few weeks back in Dunedin when he came in to cover for Wyatt Crockett's head knock.
Most expected veteran backup man Crockett to be promoted to starting duties and Hames to be introduced off the bench in the impact role in the second half against the Boks.
"We had make a decision, do we start Crocky and then bring Kane off bench? Hansen said.
"We just think it will be easier for Kane to start and also the secondary thought process is we're only making the one change. It's a twofold scenario: we felt it was best for Kane to start and leave the combination with Crocky coming off the bench because it's worked well for us."
It will be a huge test for Hames, who is not a renowned scrummager. Going against the Wallabies is one thing, but that gnarly Boks front row is sure to ask a few hard questions of the new chum.
Maybe that is part of Hansen's motivation for throwing him straight in. They are going to know a lot more about his capabilities in the test arena after Saturday night at QBE Stadium.
The rest of the starting XV is relatively predictable, though some eyebrows may have been raised about Fifita's omission on the back of that New Plymouth showcase of his skills.
But Hansen explained Fifita's injury, and a preference for Squire's qualities this week meant it was always going to be a call that would go this way.
"Vaea had a very good game [in New Plymouth], but we still think Liam is the man for this job. Vaea has still got growth in his game to have, and he's got a bit of a sore shoulder anyway so wasn't available," said Hansen.
"We're happy with where Vaea is at, and really happy with where Liam is at. [But] Liam is the form man and we feel he's doing a good job for us."
Milner-Skudder will also be happy to get a second straight start on the wing, after making his first test appearance last week since the 2015 World Cup. Dagg's ongoing knee problems allowed Hansen to give his jinky wing another chance to impress.
The other changes were predictable. The in-form Rieko Ioane returns in the No 11 jersey, while a fit-again Ryan Crotty comes in for Anton Lienert-Brown at centre and Aaron Smith regains the No 9 jersey after sitting out the Pumas match.
Up front, Sam Cane is back at No 7, with Ardie Savea dropping into his more comfortable impact role off the bench, and Sam Whitelock returns to the second row to partner Brodie Retallick.
"Our big focus this week has been about continual improvement, growing ourselves as a team, growing our game and how we want to play it," said Hansen. "We need the games we are getting. We've had a bit of adversity, and that will only make us better."
Hansen said South Africa would be a dangerous beast. "They scrummage well, they attack well and their defence is getting better. There's a long-standing rivalry, we enjoy playing them, they play hard and it's always competitive."
Skipper Kieran Read will play his 104th test to overtake Ma'a Nonu as the fifth-most capped All Black of all time.
The All Blacks have won nine of their last 10 tests against South Africa and seven on the bounce at home. It will be the New Zealanders' first test in Albany since their 2005 romp over Fiji.
New Zealand sits top of the Rugby championship with 14 points, while South Africa is the only side with a hope of catching them on 11 points.
ALL BLACKS: Damian McKenzie, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read (capt), Sam Cane, Liam Squire, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Nepo Laulala, Dane Coles, Kane Hames. Reserves: Codie Taylor, Wyatt Crockett, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Scott Barrett, Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara, Lima Sopoaga, Anton Lienert-Brown.