The time is right to put Ben Smith into centre, says All Black coach Steve Hansen.
Smith, who has starred in the black jersey on the right wing this year, will move into the No 13 jersey for Saturday night's Bledisloe Cup match at Forsyth Barr Stadium, replacing Conrad Smith, who is on a sabbatical.
Hansen said the move infield for Smith had long been on their radar and he was confident Smith would do the job.
He is not concerned the Otago man will lose his great form by moving off the wing.
"There is always a risk of changing someone in the form that he is in,'' Hansen said. "But we have always said we needed to find another centre. Conrad has been the one and only for a long time. Now is the time to do that.
"Ben has been the guy we have earmarked for a long time. We started the season off wanting him to play him on the wing in that early part of the season as we wanted to fill the jersey out and to be been comfortable in it. And he has done that.''
Smith could have hardly done better when on the flanks.
He scored eight tries in the Rugby Championship, a try-scoring record, and was a constant threat as the All Blacks went on a winning run to take the competition for a second straight year.
Hansen labelled Smith's efforts as making him the player of the championship.
"He is in a rich vein of form. He is very confident. So we have said this is the right time to have a look a this project. He has played well against Scotland last year which gives us confidence he will do a good job for us.''
Smith does not have a truckloads of games at centre behind him, both for the All Blacks and Highlanders, but Hansen is not unduly worried.
"He has trained there quite a bit because he has been our cover for centre. If Conrad was to go off he would have gone there and he went to second-five against Argentina. It is not like he is going in there cold. He has got a bit of training time there."
Smith's move inside will be a boost for the recalled Cory Jane, who was back training with the All Blacks yesterday, for the first time this year.
Jane is back in contention and he may get back in black as early as this Saturday. Though Hansen was not drawn on Jane starting, the Wellington man is likely to see playing time on Saturday.
"Before he was injured he was world class. We expect him back there quite quickly. He would not be here if he did not start.''