All Blacks face midfield dilemma

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iol spt aug18 Ma'a Nonu AP All Blacks coach Steve Hansen could have a slight dilemma in picking his centre combination for their Rugby Championship clash with Australia. Photo by: Rob Griffith/AP

Auckland - All Blacks coach Steve Hansen could have a slight dilemma in picking his centre combination for their Rugby Championship clash with Australia at Eden Park on Saturday.

Inside centre Ma'a Nonu went off during the 12-12 draw with the Wallabies last Saturday holding his right arm and Hansen had already said, pending medical scans on Monday, it was unlikely the 92-Test veteran would be available for this week's match.

Nonu's long-time partner-in-crime Conrad Smith is widely expected to return to the side after he was late withdrawal from the team last week.

Smith left Sydney about 12 hours after the team had arrived when his wife went into labour with their first child earlier than expected.

A team official said Smith's wife Lee-Ann had given birth on Sunday to a boy.

Rookie centre Malaki Fekitoa stepped into Smith's boots with Ryan Crotty, who had not been named in the original squad being called onto the bench for the clash at Sydney's Olympic Stadium.

Hansen's dilemma, if Nonu is ruled out, will be whether to combine the explosive Fekitoa with Smith in the centres, with the veteran regaining his number 13 jersey while the 22-year-old moves in closer to the ruck.

The specialised approach would be to have Crotty, who ordinarily plays inside centre, combine with Smith in the midfield, with the Canterbury Crusaders' vice-captain's organisational skills likely to aid flyhalf Aaron Cruden.

The Waikato Chiefs' pivot failed to ignite his backline in atrocious conditions on Saturday and got caught running across field, which allowed Australia's rush defence to shut down the options to the outside backs.

Hansen's preference in the past has been to give his side a second opportunity to rectify poor performances and given Beauden Barrett's appearance last Saturday was hamstrung by a yellow card, it is highly likely Cruden will start again.

Much of the pre-match buildup last week had been about the possibility of the All Blacks claiming a record 18th successive victory but the draw ended their run at 17, a total they share with the 1965-69 All Blacks and 1997-98 Springboks.

Reaction in the rugby-mad nation on Monday was muted with many believing the conditions and referee Jaco Peyper's whistle had played a part in the stop-start nature of the clash.

The All Blacks' defence was praised, while former scrumhalf Justin Marshall was enthused by their willingness to attack after the final hooter in an effort to score a match-winning try.

“The fact they were prepared to chase a win from a near impossible situation after they had been under the pump for so long, when they really had every right to be thankful for a draw, told me everything you need to know about this side and how they have built success upon success,” Marshall wrote in his New Zealand Herald column.

“They don't have a defeatist bone in their collective body.

“Even when they're confronted by the improbable they do not yield.”

Herald columnist Chris Rattue, however, was not so generous, believing the team were on the 'brink of crisis' with the core of the side beginning to show their age as they look ahead to the 2015 World Cup in 13 months' time.

“With the World Cup year looming, and after the lucky escape against Ireland and inconsistent series against England, the All Blacks are one scratchy performance away from a potential crisis after an ill-disciplined, ragged display,” Rattue wrote.

“They were woeful in the rain, the only thing being that the Wallabies weren't much better.” – Reuters


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