Ben Smith’s return to fullback, Nehe Milner-Skudder’s test debut on the right wing and the return of Julian Savea mean the All Blacks will field a back-three made in attacking heaven for Saturday’s Bledisloe Cup test in Sydney.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has made six personnel changes to the side that beat South Africa, but kept World Cup experimentation to a minimum in naming his team to play the Wallabies in the Rugby Championship decider.
Dan Carter returns at first five-eighth for Lima Sopoaga, while Sonny Bill Williams replaces the injured Ma’a Nonu at second five-eighth where he will partner Conrad Smith in the midfield.
ROSS GIBLIN/FAIRFAX NZ
Ben Smith is back at fullback for the All Blacks Bledisloe Cup test against the Wallabies.
In the pack, Jerome Kaino returns at blindside flanker in place of Liam Messam, while Luke Romano comes back in at lock for James Broadhurst.
Romano earns a starting spot ahead of Sam Whitelock, who is part of a rejigged reserves bench that includes tight head prop Nepo Laulala and openside Sam Cane.
But of most note is a rejigged back three that leaps off the teamsheet.
Ben Smith has been shifted from wing to his preferred position of fullback in place of Israel Dagg, while Savea returns to the left wing in place of the in-form Charles Piutau.
The back three has been a moving feast this test season with Dagg, Smith, Piutau, George Moala, and Waisake Naholo all having a crack at various times and in various combinations.
Piutau has been superb, but nobody else has really dazzled in the open spaces.
Naholo briefly looked sharp, but lasted only one test before breaking his leg, Cory Jane’s been injured, while Ben Smith, who last started a test at fullback against Wales last November, has been good, but not seen enough ball in the No 14 jersey.
All the while Dagg, who has started all three tests this season in the No 15 jersey, has struggled to find the consistent rhythm and timing that once made him an irrepressible counter attacking threat.
Which has all played its part in leading to Milner-Skudder’s much-awaited debut.
The question remains whether the 24-year-old Manawatu man can transfer his freakish footwork and outlandish off loads from Super Rugby to the test arena.
If he can, his combination with Smith and Savea could turn out to be something special.
Like Sopoaga a week earlier at Ellis Park, Hansen has not hesitated in giving Milner-Skudder his chance in one of rugby’s toughest environments, ticket sales for ANZ Stadium ticking past 73,000 as the All Blacks flew into Sydney on Wednesday night.
With Carter and Williams on the inside, there is something about an All Blacks backline that screams attacking potential.
Kaino adds teak to the pack, while Romano’s selection alongside Brodie Retallick is a deserved reward after his outstanding effort against Argentina. Likewise the presence of Laulala and young hooker Codie Taylor mirror their respective upward curves.
Laulala will cover tight head prop, while Ben Franks provides loose head cover ahead of Wyatt Crockett.
The backline reserves are unchanged with Beauden Barrett covering first five and fullback, and Malakai Fekitoa the midfield and wing.
With three All Blacks centurions in the side the starting fifteen boasts 868 test caps with a further 183 on the bench, with an average age of 27.
Hansen said the team had prepared well and had not lost sight of the importance of the Bledisloe Cup and expected the match to be a brutal contest that could go to the wire.
“We are well aware that they have made improvements and that their coach Cheika wants them to be more physical and more consistent… we will have to take a step up from our Ellis Park performance.”
Meanwhile, a number of All Blacks have been released to play for their provincial sides this weekend.
Jeremy Thrush is set to turn out for Wellington against Tasman in Blenheim on Thursday, Colin Slade, Matt Todd and Patrick Osborne for Canterbury against Counties-Manukau in Pukekohe on Friday, and Broadhurst for Taranaki against Hawke’s Bay in Napier on Saturday.
Charlie Faumuina, Keven Mealamu, Nonu, Jane and Piutau did not travel with the All Blacks to Sydney.
All Blacks: Ben Smith, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Conrad Smith, Sonny Bill Williams, Julian Savea, Daniel Carter, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (c) , Jerome Kaino, Luke Romano, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Codie Taylor, Ben Franks, Nepo Laulala, Sam Whitelock, Sam Cane, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Malakai Fekitoa
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