Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

All Blacks: Heat on Smith with Carter in doubt

Centre poised to carry greater burden, though on-form Cruden appears unlikely to disappoint in No10 jersey.

Conrad Smith's vast experience could be about to get a whole lot more important for the All Blacks against a team for whom he has always had a soft spot.

If Dan Carter is ruled out of the first test against France at Eden Park on Saturday because of the cracked bone in his right hand, the burden on centre Smith's shoulders will become a little greater, the expectations a little higher.

The relatively inexperienced Aaron Cruden is likely to wear the No10 jersey in Carter's absence, and although second-five Ma'a Nonu has played more tests than Smith - 76 versus 66 - the leadership qualities of the Hurricanes skipper are beyond question.

For Smith, 31, keeping it simple is the key to this week's preparations, whether Carter is playing or not.

With Cruden - who arguably outplayed Carter in the recent Chiefs' victory over the Crusaders - waiting for his chance, the All Blacks are unlikely to lose much in terms of quality.

"You're putting a game together from scratch," Smith said. "Obviously the camps have been of benefit to us but ... even if you've played with someone before, putting a game together and playing a test match in a week obviously isn't easy when you consider the sort of prep you have for a Super rugby season.

"That's the biggest challenge. You can't try to overcomplicate it, you've just got to trust the experience and the skills the guys have got."

Smith has played France six times and has never lost to them - he wasn't selected for the 2007 World Cup quarter-final defeat in Cardiff. His second test was in Paris in 2004, a resounding 45-6 victory against a nation he has always admired.

"I've always had a lot of respect for them," Smith said. "I know when I was growing up they were the team outside of the All Blacks that I loved watching the most. I loved the way they played, the style they played with, and I think that's the same now. When they're at their best they are an entertaining side."

While Smith acknowledged that playing the French at Eden Park for the first time since the World Cup final of two years ago would be significant, it wasn't likely to be something the All Blacks would dwell on.

As for France's motivation, he wasn't so sure.

"Who knows, I don't know how the French work ... in the past if they feel you don't respect them and the public don't respect them they use that as motivation and it's huge for them," he said.

Hooker Andrew Hore, buoyed by a return to form in the Highlanders' recent victory over the Blues in Dunedin, was in a similar frame of mind when assessing the merits of French coach Phillipe Saint-Andre's men.

"The French are the French. They're the team which probably gives us the most trouble whenever we play them. They came here and were written off a few years ago and came pretty close to being world champions."

First test

NZ v France

Auckland, Saturday, 7.35pm.

- APNZ

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