Wednesday 13 December 2017

Smith returns to All Black fold for 'pivotal' clash

Aaron Smith will return to the All Blacks squad. Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP PHOTO
Aaron Smith will return to the All Blacks squad. Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP PHOTO
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Aaron Smith will return to the All Black match-day 23 when Steve Hansen reveals his hand this morning after Tawera Kerr-Barlow was released to join up with the Maori side who take on the US Eagles tomorrow.

The world-leading scrum-half hasn't played in New Zealand's last three Tests after being suspended for one game for entering a toilet with a woman at Auckland airport when on international duty.

It remains to be seen whether the 27-year-old will start or if TJ Perenara holds on to the No 9 shirt after impressing in Smith's absence.

It is one of the big calls on Hansen's agenda as he contemplates resting captain Kieran Read and starting Liam Squire at No 8.

Read has had a heavy workload this season and the suggestion is he could be given a rest at Soldier Field, with Sam Cane taking over the captaincy.

Openside Cane is just back from injury and watched Ardie Savea and Matt Todd impress in his place as the world champions continued their relentless winning streak, but Hansen has stated that the 24-year-old is his first choice No 7 and is likely to come back into the team.

Impressive winger Reiko Ioane has also been released from the main All Black squad to link up with his brother Akira on Maori duty, as have Damian MacKenzie and Elliott Dixon.

The main area of concern for the world champions is at second-row, where they are lacking experience in a big way in the absence of injured first-choice pair Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick, as well as Luke Romano, who has returned to New Zealand after a family bereavement.

That means their remaining three locks have 10 caps between them, all of which are held by the big ball-carrying Patrick Tuipulotu, with uncapped pair Scott Barrett and Vaea Fifita both in line for their debuts.

Another big call for Hansen, who was this week nominated for coach of the year, is whether to stick with Beauden Barrett at out-half or bring Aaron Cruden in from the start.

The brilliant Barrett, one of three brothers in the squad, is another who has had a long, involved season and was well below his best in last week's win over Australia, when he was replaced by Cruden early in the second half.

Assistant coach Ian Foster says Saturday's fixture is the "pivotal" game on the All Blacks' three-Test tour.

"We'd like to have a great performance," he said. "For us this is a pretty pivotal game in our tour. To come here. . . clearly we've had a few disruptions. . . and we're playing Ireland who will be gunning for us, so we see this as a massive game.

"We'll work on the word development later on - this week is about performing at the top level and by doing that and having that as our focus, that's how we grow.

"There might be a few changes here and there but it's not about just giving guys opportunity, it's about making sure this squad performs at a high level every week."

New Zealand (possible) - B Smith; I Dagg, A Lienert-Brown, R Crotty, J Savea; A Cruden, A Smith; J Moody, D Coles, O Franks; P Tuipulotu, S Barrett; J Kaino, S Cane (capt), L Squire. Reps: C Taylor, W Crockett, C Faumuina, V Fifita, K Read, TJ Perenara, B Barrett, M Fekitoa.

Irish Independent

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