Sydney – The Wallabies say they will target rookie centre Malakai Fekitoa as they set out to end 11 years of Bledisloe Cup misery against the All Blacks in Sydney on Saturday.
New Zealand look likely to make a late and crucial change to their team with 77-cap midfielder Conrad Smith returning home Friday to be with his expectant wife.
Smith, 32, ranks alongside skipper Richie McCaw and centre partner Ma'a Nonu as the most experienced All Black playing in the Rugby Championship opener against the Australians and his loss could prove decisive.
Coach Steve Hansen said Smith's wife, Lee-Ann, had been due to give birth to the couple's first child in several weeks, but that the pregnancy had advanced.
“It looks like she's going to come a little bit early... she started showing signs last night,” Hansen told reporters Friday.
“If it goes really well, he could possibly be back. But we're not holding our breath on that.”
The world champions have promoted 22-year-old Fekitoa into Smith's place as a precaution.
The All Blacks are equal with the 17-Test winning runs of the 1965-69 All Blacks and 1997-98 Springboks and are chasing a record-breaking 18th consecutive victory.
Fekitoa made his starting debut against England in June and skipper McCaw is backing the two-Test rookie to again fill the void at outside centre if Smith fails to return.
“It's happened enough times over the past and just look at the last Test we played where Conrad broke his thumb so... Malakai was the last guy who played at centre in our last Test so him slotting in will be fine,” McCaw said.
“At the end of the day, if you let those things influence what happens on the weekend, I think you haven't really got your environment set up right.
“So hopefully everyone's aware of what's going on and prepared as such and they'll be ready to go.”
If Fekitoa does start he will line up opposite Adam Ashley-Cooper just six weeks after the in-form midfielder shone against the talented youngster in the NSW Waratahs' 44-16 Super Rugby thumping of the Otago Highlanders in Sydney.
Wallabies captain Michael Hooper said while Fekitoa had a “cracking year with the Highlanders”, his team would target the Test novice.
“We understand it's a new player who will come in – Fekitoa – and you've got to try out those areas and see what you do,” Hooper told reporters.
If Smith stays at home, Canterbury Crusaders centre Ryan Crotty will take Fekitoa's place on the bench after arriving from New Zealand on Friday.
The Wallabies are sensing their time has come after 11 years without the Bledisloe Cup, a symbol of trans-Tasman supremacy.
The Waratahs have given Wallaby supporters optimism with their thrilling 33-32 victory over New Zealand champions Canterbury Crusaders in this month's Super Rugby final.
The Australians, under coach Ewen McKenzie, have also won their last seven Tests, including sweeping their three-Test series against France in June.
McCaw is still smarting from the Crusaders' Super Rugby final loss and is after Bledisloe Cup redemption.
It was McCaw's last-minute ruck infringement that allowed Bernard Foley to kick the Waratahs to their first Super Rugby title.
“Just from a personal point of view, being over here a couple of weeks ago for Super Rugby, to get a chance to come back, have a crack at Bledisloe is pretty exciting,” McCaw said.
“It's going to be a good challenge. I think we always realised that, so we're looking forward to it.
“The Wallabies are like us. They had three Tests in June that went alright – three wins – but now with the season ahead, everyone wants to get off to a good start.
“So we certainly need to improve from where we were at and I'm sure from what you hear from the Wallabies, they need to do the same. That makes for a pretty good match-up over the next couple of weeks.” – Sapa-AFP