Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Fekitoa gets first test start

Powerful Highlanders centre in for Smith while Read returns at No 8 for third test

Malakai Fekitoa replace Conrad Smith at centre to face England on Saturday. Photo / Getty Images
Malakai Fekitoa replace Conrad Smith at centre to face England on Saturday. Photo / Getty Images

From Blues reject to All Black starter in less than a year, Malakai Fekitoa has been charged with showing similar speed and perseverance in the final test of the June series.

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The 22-year-old Fekitoa has been handed the All Black No 13 jersey - a decision that all but confirms his elevated status as the heir apparent at centre to the injured Conrad Smith.

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As expected, the only other change to the starting XV is in the loose trio, where Kieran Read returns at No 8 with Jerome Kaino shifting to the blindside and Liam Messam dropping to the bench.

All Black coach Steve Hansen has picked a team which makes clear his desire to nail the series 3-0 and to take to 17 the number of consecutive victories.

There will be no talk of this being a dead rubber or an opportunity to experiment - it is a chance to build on what was a good if not consistently good performance in Dunedin.

"While we felt we improved from the first test to the second, there are areas of our game we want to improve on and that has been the focus for us this week," was Hansen's succinct rationale for picking the team he has.

What that suggests is that the tempo and rhythm found in the third quarter of the second test will be seen as the benchmark for the full 80 minutes in Hamilton and such a goal wouldn't be realistic if significant changes in personnel were made.

Read was always going to return to the team the instant he was deemed fit enough to do himself and the jersey justice. As Jerome Kaino said last week, he and Liam Messam have been aware for weeks now that the day would come when the selectors would have to choose between them for the No 6 shirt.

Kaino, on form not on reputation, made the strongest case and has been duly rewarded. The only decision that would have required pause for thought was whether to play Fekitoa or Ryan Crotty at centre.

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Fekitoa, despite his relative inexperience, has made himself irresistibly tempting to the selection panel. His form for the Highlanders was too good to ignore - his ability to explode past defenders and time his defensive destruction - won him his initial call up to the squad.

Since he's been in there, he's been able to cope with the mental and physical demands at training and in his 20 minutes of game time at Eden Park.

While there will inevitably have been some deliberation about Fekitoa's readiness to start and also his ability to successfully complement Ma'a Nonu, it would have most likely been a relatively quick conclusion reached by the selectors.

The potential rewards Fekitoa offers outweigh the risks. He has shown an incredible ability all season to beat defenders and find space and turn nothing into something.

Nonu's experience in guiding him through the game will be critical and given that England may return Manu Tuilagi to the midfield alongside Billy Twelvetrees, the presence of two powerful, direct runners and big tacklers in the All Black midfield may not be such a bad thing.

If ever there were a game where size and power in the midfield may be qualities worth promoting ahead of subtle footwork and clever angles, this is it.

It's not that Nonu and Fekitoa are without softer skills or capable of deft touches - but essentially they are power athletes capable of meeting head on the similar qualities England present in their probable midfield.

Cory Jane, while never under serious threat of missing out, will know he won't be given many more chances to sharpen his handling and improve his offering while the back three in general will be looking once again to tighten their collective and individual work under the high ball.

All Blacks v England
Waikato Stadium, 7.35pm Saturday
Ben Smith
Cory Jane
Malakai Fekitoa
Ma'a Nonu
Julian Savea
Aaron Cruden
Aaron Smith
Kieran Read
Richie McCaw (c)
Jerome Kaino
Sam Whitelock
Brodie Retallick
Owen Franks
Dane Coles
Tony Woodcock

Reserves:
Keven Mealamu, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Patrick Tuipulotu, Liam Messam, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Ryan Crotty.

- NZ Herald

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