Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Hansen playing it surprisingly safe with picks


Finally, a quibble of sorts - the previously impeccable Steve Hansen has picked a side that surprises not for its boldness, but for its relative conservatism.

The team are full of experience, class and should dispose easily enough of a French side that were descending into chaos by the end of the 30-0 rout in Christchurch.

But those who have maverick instincts would have liked to see a few more risks this week - but then it's hardly fair to be overly critical of a coach who still values this old-fashioned idea of winning tests.

There is a bigger picture to think about this year, but Hansen has rationalised that there is no rush. The one genuinely difficult part to reconcile is the decision to keep Ben Smith on the wing, knowing that incumbent centre Conrad Smith will be on sabbatical later this year.

The hints and murmurings about shifting Ben Smith for this test were strong - and it made good sense.

Centre is not one of those berths that players can dabble in. The more exposure a player can have - particularly to the defensive lines - the better: surely the All Blacks of all teams don't need reminding about the dangers of using inexperienced centres in critical games.

The test in New Plymouth was the perfect opportunity to give Ben Smith a better feel for a role he will likely be asked to fill later this year.

The All Blacks have won the series; there's no such thing as an easy test, but no question, the game in New Plymouth won't be viewed in the same way as an encounter against the Springboks or Wallabies or England at Twickenham.

Selecting Ben Smith would have minimised the risks that await later this year when either he or someone else will have to wear No13 in Paris, London and Dublin.

Conversely, with Rene Ranger almost certainly heading to Montpellier in October, is it valid to give him a start this week? His form deserves it - but this, as Hansen says, is a year where he feels he has to take risks. Selecting Ranger on the wing might seem curious - it has no longevity and while he's played well in cameo appearances, Savea was equally impressive in Christchurch and his confidence would benefit from another run this Saturday.

But Ranger will be around for the Rugby Championship and he can play a key role in helping the All Blacks win that.

Looking at the bench, the inference is that should the All Blacks get the game safely under control, Conrad Smith will be taken off, Ben Smith put into the midfield and Charles Piutau given his debut. If that happens, those final 20 minutes or so will be about preparing for the longer-term future.

- NZ Herald

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Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer. He has written several books on rugby including the Reign of King Henry, Black Obsession and For the Love of the Game.

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