Rugby: Smith ready for challenge

By Daniel Richardson

Impressive Fekitoa threat to All Black's hold on centre.

Highlanders' centre Malakai Fekitoa is likely to be rewarded for his blistering form with an All Black jersey when the final squad of 31 is selected. Photo / Getty Images
Highlanders' centre Malakai Fekitoa is likely to be rewarded for his blistering form with an All Black jersey when the final squad of 31 is selected. Photo / Getty Images

Few players are an automatic selection for the All Blacks.

There's generally someone out there breathing down their neck but since 2008 Conrad Smith has operated largely unchallenged as the All Blacks' starting centre.

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Following the 2007 World Cup disaster, Smith has been a regular and racked up 75 appearances since his international career began with a try on debut against Italy in Rome in November 2004.

The rise of Malakai Fekitoa has people wondering if Smith's hold on the position could be coming to an end. It's a fair question given the impact Fekitoa has had for the Highlanders in Super Rugby this year, with the Tongan-born 22-year-old showing a nice mix of attacking flair and defensive grunt.

He has scored six tries in 12 appearances, while he has also made 14 clean breaks and beaten 48 defenders this season.

Young tyros often produce eye-catching moments only with ball-in-hand but Fekitoa's cover tackle on a flying Julian Savea at Westpac Stadium two weeks ago may have been the defensive play of the year.

While Smith is 32, he offers the All Blacks a unique mix of skills, some of which can't be measured with numbers on a spreadsheet, while his long-term combination in the midfield with Ma'a Nonu is a partnership few would want to break.

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Fekitoa has caught the attention of All Blacks coach Steven Hansen who said it was likely the young centre would be named on Sunday in the 31-strong national squad to meet England next month.

"I've been really impressed with Malakai," Hansen said. "He's a sharp player. You only have to tell him something once and he seems to pick it up pretty smartly and his form's sensational."

The All Blacks finished their second three-day training camp for the year in Wellington yesterday and Smith said he was aware of Fekitoa's presence and welcomed the competition.

"I think I'm always under pressure. I'm sure if you go back through the years there's been countless players playing really well through Super Rugby and putting pressure on myself and the same with other positions through the team and it's a good thing," Smith said. "I wouldn't have it any other way."

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Having conducted two training camps with a wider squad of 35 during the past fortnight, Hansen will have to make a couple of tough selection calls this weekend, notably around his hookers.

Keven Mealamu and Dane Coles are surefire picks but rookies Nathan Harris and Liam Coltman have trained with the squad as Hansen looks to build depth in the position.

If Hansen decides either Harris or Coltman are ready he will select one of the two, otherwise, the squad to meet England may include only Mealamu and Coles.

Hansen will likely carry all three halfbacks, Aaron Smith, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and TJ Perenara, from his wider training group, while third-string pivot Colin Slade may also squeeze in alongside Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett given Slade's ability to cover fullback.

Meanwhile, Hansen gave No 8 Kieran Read a clean bill of health after the Crusader had been limited following a head knock and the flu, which had troubled him lately.

- APNZ

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