Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

All Blacks: Kaino, Smith, Cruden vital AB triumvirate

Aaron Smith. Photo / Getty Images
Aaron Smith. Photo / Getty Images

When teams have a strong core at No 8, halfback and five-eighths, their chances of success improve.

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Other factors will impact on results at the highest level of international rugby but if the nerve centre of a side is in unison and delivering, there should be more flow to a team's performance.

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That axis in the side is the hard drive for the team's functions.

For the All Blacks that is now Jerome Kaino, Aaron Smith and Aaron Cruden while England are likely to use Ben Morgan, Danny Care and Freddie Burns when the test series opens at Eden Park on Saturday.

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Ideally, the All Blacks would have picked Kieran Read at No 8 until recurring concussion issues left them a choice between a revived Kaino or Victor Vito.

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It is a change, a glitch in the planning but not as much a shift as England have been forced into because their main No 8 Billy Vunipola and five-eighths Owen Farrell only arrived midweek and were not considered for this match.

Smith and Cruden have started 11 All Blacks tests together and had Read as their No 8 every time except when McCaw started in that role in the third test against Ireland in 2012.

Kaino is an experienced loose forward who has alternated between No 8 and blindside for the Blues during the Super 15 series.

However, you have to go all the way back to a Bledisloe Cup test against the Wallabies in 2008 to find Kaino in the boot of the All Blacks scrum.

He was a quality test player when he left New Zealand two years ago and has shown comparable form on his return.

Switching to No 8 for this test will add another layer, however slim, of apprehension about the All Blacks formation for this contest. The last time Kaino played No 8 for the All Blacks, they lost to the Wallabies in Sydney and the test before that to the Springboks.

Kaino is a much more refined player now who has worked out the nuances and tempo needed in test rugby. He has learned a great deal about getting himself ready for these clashes.

He has looked to be at his best once more with every indication several seasons in Japan have freshened rather than frayed his gifts for top quality rugby. Kaino has brought high standards for much of the year and was putting real heat on Liam Messam to start on the blindside.

Now they will both start at Eden Park with Kaino replacing Read as the No 8 sits out another game because of his recurring concussion.

Besides his excellence all-round game, Read used to call the lineouts and often nominated himself as a target. Now Messam or Kaino will have to take up that slack.

Meanwhile, Smith and Cruden will step out again after they paired up for the All Blacks' victory against Ireland in Dublin last November.

Referee Nigel Owens was in charge of that match in which he allowed Cruden a second conversion attempt which he goaled to complete the All Blacks unbeaten season. Owens will referee Saturday's game as well.

Cruden looked rusty in his recent return from a lengthy layoff with a broken thumb but his experience of 29 tests and knowledge of Smith's game will be key.

- NZ Herald

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