You always felt like All Blacks coach Steve Hansen would make changes following the narrow win over Australia in Round 2 of the Rugby Championship. Taking into consideration New Zealand’s match this weekend is against Argentina, by far the weakest-looking side in the tournament – made the decision to mix around the side even easier.
That is exactly what has happened as Hansen announced almost half of the starting XV (seven players to be exact) will be different when the All Blacks and the Pumas face off in New Plymouth.
It would be unfair to suggest that septet of players to miss out have been dropped. Many have been rested after a long season of Super Rugby and a gruelling series against the British and Irish Lions tourists. The group missing out is like a who’s who of New Zealand rugby as Aaron Smith, Ben Smith (sabbatical), Rieko Ioane, Ryan Crotty, Sam Whitelock, Liam Squire, and Jerome Kaino, step aside.
Here is what to expect from the men stepping into their shoes:
Luke Romano – Romano might be the biggest surprise inclusion of all the new faces. He hasn’t started a Test match for 15 months as the partnership of Whitelock with Brodie Retallick has been allowed to develop into the best 4/5 combination in the world. Romano fell down the pecking order at lock behind Scott Barrett during the Lions series, but you know exactly what you will get from the 31-year-old when he hits the pitch.
Ardie Savea – It always feels like Savea is ready to take on the role of a starting Test player, but the All Blacks love his versatility and impact off of the bench. With Matt Todd still out of the picture, Savea gets a rare chance to start ahead of Sam Cane at #7. It will be interesting to see if he can put in a performance that will give the selectors a real discussion topic down the road.
Vaea Fifita – This will be Fifita’s first start in the All Blacks jersey and the Tongan born 25-year-old will play in the flanker role that his international coaches prefer. His physical nature at the breakdowns, and with ball in hand – will be a real problem for an Argentinian side not noted to be loaded with big hitting forwards in defence.
Nehe Milner-Skudder – It has been almost two years since sensational winger Milner-Skidder has played for New Zealand. In that time – mainly while injured or out of form – he has had to watch a parade of wingers pass him in the pecking order. Playing on the left wing for the first time will be a challenge, but after waiting so long to get this recall it is hard to see the 26-year-old not finding work and making an impact on Saturday.
Israel Dagg – Suddenly Dagg goes from out of the side to the leading veteran player in an All Blacks back line that is loaded with youth and talent, but short on experience at the international level. The 29-year-old will be right at home on the wing – he has the ability to play any of the back three positions well – and the All Blacks know exactly what they will get from a guy who might finally be healthy after knee issues slowed him down all year.
Anton Lienert-Brown – While Lienert-Brown is not a like-for-like replacement for Ryan Crotty, he does share the latter’s ability to make everything on the rugby pitch look annoyingly easy. Lienert-Brown is actually built more in the mould of a smaller Sonny Bill Williams with his ability to offload. The NZ staff knows what he will bring after getting the nod as the third centre in the rotation for most of 2017.
TJ Perenara – You either love or hate Perenara. The feisty scrum half will relish the opportunity to start a Test for just the ninth time in his 35 caps. He is a different type of number 9 to Aaron Smith as his delivery can be a touch erratic and his kicking game is not always the smoothest. What Perenara will give is giant effort around the ruck defensively. He always is a threat to poach a loose carry and offer outstanding support play.
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