Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

All Blacks: Smith picked to play wing

Selectors' hopes of reviving Dagg hint at a start at fullback against France at Eden Park.

All Black Steven Luatua gets some hanging time during a training session at Waitakere yesterday. Photo / Brett Phibbs
All Black Steven Luatua gets some hanging time during a training session at Waitakere yesterday. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Ben Smith will transfer his art to the wing in a switch the All Blacks hope will mirror the work of his predecessor.

He has been the form fullback throughout the Super 15 but will change roles against France because of injury and the selectors' wish to resuscitate Israel Dagg.

Smith's move mimics the conversion Cory Jane made with such effect in 2009, before a knee injury took him out of contention this season.

The 27-year-old Smith debuted in 2009 on tour for the All Blacks when he replaced Jane for the test against Italy. It was a rare swap as Smith has made just three starts and a total of 12 test appearances since.

The All Black selectors do not want Smith to be labelled as a utility player although they have the luxury of using him across a number of roles.

"I think fullback fits in well with wing, I think those positions are pretty similar these days because you work as a back-three unit," Smith said.

He thought his strong form was simply a product of playing more and being more qualified.

The All Black selectors' wish to revive Dagg's modest season hints at a start at fullback against France at Eden Park on Saturday and a move to the right wing vacancy for Smith.

However the panel are wary about changing Smith too often.

"He is good enough to play in three positions and for us it is probably a matter of where we have the best mix. Wing looks pretty likely this week," assistant coach Ian Foster admitted.

Other changes to the preferred halfback/ five-eighths pairing have been forced by injury.

Halfback Piri Weepu had bounced back after his concussion but the staff will be reluctant to send him into test combat so soon after he was knocked cold.

Daniel Carter's fractured hand is still swollen and Foster admitted that made him an "unlikely" starter.

Some of the concerns about the injured props eased yesterday when all but Tony Woodcock trained at the Waitakere Trusts Stadium as rain pounded the ground.

The selectors want to start their senior men this week while the new players get a chance to soak up life with the All Blacks before they are eased into action. The most awkward decisions may be on the eight-man bench.

Several Blues players reinforced numbers at training, although Frank Halai was late but uninjured after being involved in a crash on his way to the session.

The change to outdoors work suited the players after spending a lot of their camps and recent time on whiteboard planning and video analysis.

"Planning behind the scenes was necessary but to get out and do the stuff was critical," Foster said.

In Carter's absence, Aaron Cruden ran a number of the backline ideas. He had played 20 tests and had shown against Wales late last year how he had cemented himself as a test first-five.

"He has a controlled part to his game and the running part and has carried that form on in the Super 15," Foster added.

Most of the All Black work had been on their structure rather than assessing France's tactics.

They were looking to nail their game plan this week and then extend their repertoire in the next two internationals.

"The key thing in the June window is getting to know our game and in some ways that is an advantage," Foster said. He was more settled in his second season as an All Black coach-selector but tangling with France was a new experience for him.

Likely All Black team

Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read (c), Sam Cane, Liam Messam, Luke Romano, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Keven Mealamu, Wyatt Crockett
Reserves: Andrew Hore, Ben Franks, Ben Afeaki, Jeremy Thrush, Victor Vito, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Rene Ranger, Beauden Barrett.

- NZ Herald

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