SYDNEY – Sonny Bill Williams has been rushed back into the All Black team after serving his four-match suspension, while Jerome Kaino has been dropped for the opening match of the Rugby Championship against Australia in Sydney on Saturday.
In a revamped line-up with six changes to the side which drew 15-all in the last Test of the recent series against the British and Irish Lions, only halfbacks Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith remain from the starting backline.
Fledgling international Damian McKenzie gets his chance to take a claim at fullback, with Ben Smith, who is taking a break from Test rugby in two weeks, moving to the wing.
Ryan Crotty and Rieko Ioane return from injury and illness respectively.
“This Test will give us a great opportunity to gauge where we are at when it comes to things we have been working on since the Lions tour,” coach Steve Hansen said.
Double World Cup winner Williams has not played for seven weeks since being suspended for a dangerous shoulder charge that saw him sent off in the second Test against the Lions.
The suspension meant he missed the All Blacks warm up match last Friday against two provincial sides in New Zealand, but he has slotted straight into his regular slot since arriving in Australia.
“He’s certainly raring to go. He’s done his four-game suspension. It’s been an awkward time for him, it’s been tough,” assistant coach Ian Foster said.
“He’s made sure that he has used that time smartly, he’s trained well and been able to get on top of a couple of niggles.”
The 81-Test Kaino, who has been yellow-carded in his last two matches – including the final Test against the Lions – gives way to Liam Squire in the No 6 jersey.
Disciplinary problems figured highly in the inability of the world champion All Blacks to put away the Lions, with penalties enabling the Lions to win the second Test and draw the third.
At stake against the Wallabies on Saturday are not only points in the Rugby Championship, which also includes South Africa and Argentina, but also the Bledisloe Cup, the symbol of trans-Tasman rugby supremacy.
It has been firmly in New Zealand hands since 2003, and over the past 14 years the All Blacks and Wallabies have played each other 42 times, with New Zealand winning 33, drawing two and losing seven.
“There’s a real sense of excitement within the group and a desire to go out and perform well this weekend,” Hansen said.
“We’ve had a great build-up here in Sydney, and there’s a single-minded focus. We’re playing for our most significant trophy outside of the Rugby World Cup, and it means a lot to us as a team.”
The last time the All Blacks played the Wallabies, they won 37-10 in the third Bledisloe Cup match in October last year.
All Black Team
15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Ben Smith, 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 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Bench: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 Anton Lienert-Brown.