LIAM NAPIER IN CARDIFF 22/11/2012
Aaron Smith has shaken off a knee injury to hold off Piri Weepu's
push for the No 9 jersey as the All Blacks "A" team is restored for
this weekend's test against Wales.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen didn't hesitate when asked today which position caused him the most deliberation this week.
His response was immediate, and revealing.
"Halfback," Hansen said in Cardiff.
"Piri Weepu's performance is the one we've been searching for. His
performance against Scotland was outstanding. Not only did we see his
experience but we saw him getting to the breakdown and clearing the ball
the way we'd like him to."
After two below-par outings against the Wallabies and Italy, where
his forwards failed to provide enough protection, Smith is officially
on notice from his veteran rival, who could play a pivotal role from
the bench at Millennium Stadium on Sunday (NZT).
"He may have got caught up in the test against Australia with how
things have been going so well for him," Hansen said, assessing the
reasons for Smith's dip in form.
"His preparation probably wasn't as complete as he would like.
"I thought he played reasonably well against Italy. It wasn't his
fault that we didn't do the job as ball carries and at the cleanout. He
got left carrying the baby so to speak, because other people didn't do
"He was still sharp with his passing when he did get the protection he needed."
While fullback Israel Dagg returns from injury, Keven Mealamu has
been given time to rest his injured calf, meaning Andrew Hore starts at
hooker and Dane Coles gets another chance to impress later in the
Beauden Barrett (ribs), Adam Thomson (farcical IRB suspension
appeal) and Tamati Ellison (toe) were also unavailable for selection.
"With his history of calf injuries we felt we would be better off
being cautious and giving it another week rather than pushing him,"
Hansen said of Mealamu.
"It's also another opportunity to grow Dane Coles who we've been
very happy with on the tour. For the long-term [future] we need Coles
to get as much experience as possible."
There are three changes from the last time Hansen fielded his
strongest line-up - that being the draw in Brisbane - and nine to last
week's starting side in Rome. As expected, Richie McCaw regains the
captaincy from Kieran Read after having a weeks rest
After a two week trial, Hansen has confirmed Julian Savea, with 10
tries from seven tests, is New Zealand's best left wing, Luke Romano is
the preferred locking partner for Sam Whitelock, and Liam Messam
remains the premier blindside flanker.
"Liam has really stepped up this year," Hansen said in explaining why the Chiefs co-captain got the nod.
"We saw something in Victor's game against Scotland which was much
improved. He was free. He was a little more carefree and looked more
comfortable against Scotland. If he does that we know he's a really
big, gifted athlete."
Brodie Retallick isn't far off a start, but Hansen felt the Chiefs
lock had endured a big season and singled out Romano's ball carrying as
vital for the opening exchanges.
The only other talking point was prop Charlie Faumuina's inclusion
on the bench, ahead of new Hurricanes recruit Ben Franks. Faumuina's
ability with ball in hand gave him the edge.
All Blacks: Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith,
Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea, Dan Carter, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Richie
McCaw (c), Liam Messam, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Andrew
Hore, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Dane Coles, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Brodie Retallick, Victor Vito, Piri Weepu, Aaron Cruden, Ben Smith