Kieran Read will captain an All Blacks team featuring 14 starting changes against Italy.
With Richie McCaw being given the week off in Rome to prepare for two tougher assignments ahead, Read has assumed the All Blacks captaincy mantle for the first time this week.
Sunday’s test against the Italians also signals a passing of the baton of sorts with the world-class No 8 set to take over the reigns when McCaw takes his six-month sabbatical next year.
“He’s done a lot of it for the Crusaders. He’s a genuine leader,” All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said of Read.
“He’s been a leader of the forwards and line-out for some time now. It comes naturally to him. Obviously he’s not the finished product at this level but he’ll grow over time into a very good captain.”
McCaw’s absence opens the door for Chiefs openside flanker Sam Cane to gain just his second test start in a totally reshuffled loose-forward trio that includes the return of incumbent blindside Liam Messam.
Cane’s only other chance in the No 7 jersey came in the 60-0 rout over Ireland in June. Hansen is keen to asses his abilities against the rugged Italians, who, according to IRB stats, are the best set-piece side in the Six Nations.
“We’ve already seen enough from Sam Cane to know he’s made for test rugby,” Hansen said. “This game is about giving him another opportunity to get some experience and learn it’s not always going to be an easy ride.”
As expected, the All Blacks will be without their two most influential figures with McCaw in the stands and Dan Carter sitting on the bench to allow Aaron Cruden the chance to boss the back-line.
Carter will provide cover for the reinstated first-choice midfield of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, with Tamati Ellison and Ben Smith suffering injuries against Scotland last week.
Cruden last started in the All Blacks scratchy win over the Springboks in Dunedin and will be intent on proving he can, indeed, command at test level, after leading the Chiefs to the Super Rugby title this year.
Hansen revealed halfback, left wing and fullback were up for grabs, although the injured Israel Dagg is expected to recover next week.
On that basis Aaron Smith, who completes the reunited Manawatu halves partnership, also has plenty to prove.
Smith endured his worst outing in the black jersey in Brisbane and with Piri Weepu applying real pressure for the first time in his short but impressive test career, the Highlanders No 9 needs to reinforce his status this week.
Ben Smith’s injury paved the way for Taranaki first five-eighths Beauden Barrett, in just his fourth test, to make his first start at this level at fullback.
“He [Barrett] probably would have come off the bench again and possibly someone like Ben Smith would have played back there. Ben is a bit injured and couldn’t do it,” Hansen said.
Also for the first time this season powerhouse wings Hosea Gear, who shifts to the right wing, and Julian Savea, the only player in the starting side to back up from the 51-22 victory at Murrayfield, link up in what is a frightening proposition for the Azzurri.
“We were always going to play these two guys together. We haven’t had that luxury this year,” Hansen said.
“We’ve always had the feeling we needed Cory [Jane] out there for that experience. Julian and H have had quite a bit of rugby now and it’s time to see if they can play as a partnership.”
The forward pack has been given a major overhaul with four Blues players handed starting roles.
Talk-back lines will be running hot with Ali Williams set to make his first start at lock in 13 months, his last coming against Canada in the World Cup. Williams has been paired with Brodie Retallick in a new second-row pairing.
In the front-row veteran prop Tony Woodcock, hooker Keven Mealamu and Charlie Faumuina team-up and the two rookies, Dane Coles and Tawera Kerr-Barlow, get another shot off the bench this week.
All Blacks: Beauden Barrett, Hosea Gear, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden. Aaron Smith. Kieran Read, Sam Cane, Liam Messam, Brodie Retallick, Ali Williams, Charlie Faumuina, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Dane Coles, Wyatt Crockett, Ben Franks, Sam Whitelock, Victor Vito, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Dan Carter, Cory Jane
– © Fairfax NZ News
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