AUCKLAND – The All Blacks have undergone their second shake-up in as many weeks with seven changes for Saturday’s Test against the Springboks, including the recall of Aaron Smith.
Vaea Fifita, one of the standout performers in the scratchy 39-22 win over Argentina last week, cannot even make the bench for the fourth-round Rugby Championship encounter at North Harbour Stadium in Albany.
However, flyhalf Beauden Barrett – the target of much criticism following the come-from-behind win over Los Pumas – retains his place with the expectation he will be more settled with the return of Smith.
Coach Steve Hansen, who rates South Africa highly, believes the absence of Smith last week was one reason why the backline, under playmaker Barrett, struggled with the Argentinians’ rushed defence.
“There’s a difference between the speed of ball when Aaron’s there, so he will come back,” Hansen said.
With the exception of Nehe Milner-Skudder moving to the right wing in place of Ben Smith, it is the same All Black run-on side that narrowly beat Australia 35-29 three weeks ago.
Ryan Crotty returns at outside centre for the Test at Auckland’s North Harbour Stadium, with Rieko Ioane back on the left wing, while Milner-Skudder moves to his more familiar right wing slot.
In the forwards, prop Kane Hames gets his first start in his third Test, in for the injured Joe Moody, while Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock are reunited in the second row.
The more experienced Liam Squire regains the No 6 jersey at the expense of Fifita, with Sam Cane at openside flank and Ardie Savea dropping to the bench.
The All Blacks are trying to perfect a high-paced, high-risk, high-reward game, but apart from the first 50 minutes of their opening match against Australia, the results have been inconsistent.
Hansen said the focus in the lead-up to playing the Springboks has been on “how we want to play” in the clash of the two unbeaten sides.
“We need the games we are getting at the moment, we’ve had a bit of adversity, and that will only make us better.”
In the first three rounds of the championship, the All Blacks have beaten Australia twice and Argentina.
The Springboks have beaten Argentina twice and drawn against Australia, and Hansen said they would be tough opponents. “They scrummage well, they attack well with the ball and their defence is getting better. So, that’s basically the game,” he said.
“We know they’re a tough opponent. They’re always a tough opponent. There’s a long-standing history and rivalry between our two teams.
“We enjoy playing them, they play hard and it’s always competitive. But afterwards, they’re always keen to catch up for a chat and a beer.”
The All Blacks and Springboks have played each other 93 times, with 55 wins to the All Blacks, 35 to South Africa and three draws.
All Black Team
15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (captain), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Kane Hames.
Bench: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 Anton Lienert-Brown.