Wellington - The return of cross-code star Sonny Bill Williams for the Rugby Championship has added intrigue to the third Test against Wales with All Blacks coach Steve Hansen overhauling the New Zealand line-up.
With the All Blacks 2-0 up ahead of Saturday's
third and final Test in Dunedin, Hansen spiced up the dead rubber by rejigging
almost every combination of his match-day 23 and including three debutants.
And he confirmed his tinkering with the
midfield is directly connected to double World Cup winner Williams re-joining
the squad for the Rugby Championship after he completes his bid for an Olympic
medal with the Sevens team in August.
"We need to find out about some of
these guys. We've got Sonny coming back after the sevens so obviously one of
this group has to go," said Hansen.
Under the roofed Dunedin stadium, with a
fast track assured, Hansen wants to complete the Wales whitewash while letting
Rugby Championship rivals South Africa, Australia and Argentina see the depth
of talent he has available.
Wales coach Warren Gatland, meanwhile, has
stayed as loyal as he possibly could to his bruised and battered tourists, only
replacing props Gethin Jenkins and Samson Lee with Rob Evans and Tomas Francis.
Jenkins is among six players side-lined by injury since the tour began but Gatland believes Wales are closing the gap on the world champions.
The only problem, he said, was that Wales
tend to switch off for five or 10 minutes in a game and that's when the All
Blacks punish them.
"We've just got to keep up that
pressure and stop shooting ourselves in the foot by making some of those costly
errors," he said on Thursday.
Hansen has changed five of his starting
line-up with Elliot Dixon making his debut and centre George Moala getting a
second cap 11 months after his debut against Samoa.
There are seven changes on the bench with
the inclusion of uncapped flanker Liam Squire and prop Ofa Tu'ungafasi.
With the series won, Hansen described his
revamp as "risk and reward", saying the time was right to blood new
"If they can play at the high quality
we're expecting them to play then it bodes well for us," he said.
The promotion of Moala, who is in the squad
only because Charlie Ngatai has concussion issues, adds to the midfield puzzle.
Ryan Crotty has been named at inside centre
for all three Tests with Malakai Fekitoa outside him in the first two and Seta
Tamanivalu coming off the bench.
With Moala getting the nod, Hansen added to
the intrigue by naming wing Waisake Naholo as centre cover.
Of the starting 15, the only stable
partnership involves locks Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock.
Charlie Faumuina gets the chance to start a
Test at prop, Beauden Barrett replaces the injured Aaron Cruden at flyhalf and
Julian Savea, dropped for the second Test, earns a recall on the wing to
Prop Wyatt Crockett is the only replacement
to retain his place while hooker Codie Taylor, scrumhalf Tawera Kerr-Barlow and
fly-half Lima Sopoaga appear on the bench for the first time in the series.
After Saturday's Test, the All Blacks return to their clubs for the remainder of the Super Rugby season. The Rugby Championship opener is against Australia in Sydney on August 20.