With their senior counterparts unavailable, Aaron Cruden and Aaron Smith will start their fifth test together for the All Blacks tomorrow night at Eden Park.
Though youthful, there should be little trepidation about the resumption of the Manawatu halves pairing against France.
Last year first five-eighth Cruden and halfback Smith played together against Ireland in Hamilton, Argentina in Wellington, as well as in Rome, Cardiff and London on the end of year tour.
The All Blacks won all except their final test of the year at Twickenham and this familiar duo should be relishing the prospect of a World Cup final rematch.
Dan Carter (cracked hand) and Piri Weepu (head knock) may have been preferred to start, but if the All Blacks’ green forward pack can gain ascendancy over the weakened French, Smith should recover from his stuttering season at the Highlanders. His passing accuracy and decision-making needs to lift.
Already this year Cruden has proven what he can do with a solid platform at the Chiefs. He will be looking to take the next step. Look for Julian Savea to lurk off Cruden’s shoulder for impact.
With the All Blacks’ most capped prop, Tony Woodcock, ruled out, Wyatt Crockett has been given the nod ahead of Ben Franks.
Crockett’s scrummaging ability will be put under spotlight at loose-head. Captain Kieran Read’s temperament and sweet talk of the referee may be tested.
Dane Coles’ first start at hooker is notable for its hint to the future. Coles came off the bench in all four previous tests. Andrew Hore is the major omission with veteran Keven Mealamu preferred on the bench in the 23-man squad.
The prospect of two debuts – prop Ben Afeaki and lock Jeremy Thrush – will generate interest. All Blacks coach Steve Hansen will hope he can introduce those rookies in a comfortable position, but when it comes to Les Bleus, nothing is a given.
“Though the week has been disrupted with injury and illness, we have still been able to have a good week’s preparation and there is no doubting that our two camps have been invaluable in assisting wit this.
“To their credit, everyone has worked hard off the field and we couldn’t be happier.
The young guys have provided that unbridled enthusiasm that comes with being a new All Black, while the more experienced guys have provided the calm focus that’s needed to allow a busy week to be dealt with in the right manner and to prepare well.”
In the backs Ben Smith gets a deserved start on the right wing and Israel Dagg is lucky to retain his place at fullback. Dagg’s form and defensive issues will also be scrutinised.
While there is no room for his Blues’ bolters just yet, Rene Ranger is in line for his first test since 2010. He is an exciting utility that can be injected in a number of back-line roles.
Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu are the experienced constants charged with adding composure. Nonu, in particular, will be keen to get his groove back after a similarly disappointing year down south.
And, of course, Sam Cane’s long-awaited chance to step into Richie McCaw’s coveted No. 7 jersey arrives.
Hansen emphasised his side would not underestimate the French.
“We all know how the French can play. The only predictable thing about them is
their unpredictability so we will have to be ready for whatever they throw at us.”
ALL BLACKS: Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read (c), Sam Cane, Liam Messam, Brodie Retallick, Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Wyatt Crockett. Reserves: Keven Mealamu Ben Afeaki, Ben Franks, Jeremy Thrush, Victor Vito, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Beauden Barrett, Rene Ranger