Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Smith poised to take centre stage

With the series against France secured, All Black selectors look set to make some bold personnel decisions.

Ben Smith rounded off another impressive display against France by scoring under the posts at AMI Stadium in Christchurch on Saturday. Photo / Getty Images
Ben Smith rounded off another impressive display against France by scoring under the posts at AMI Stadium in Christchurch on Saturday. Photo / Getty Images

The series in the bag, the All Blacks will shift their emphasis to preparing for the future this week which is why Ben Smith is likely to be picked at centre.

All Black coach Steve Hansen is also keen to get Steven Luatua on the track to see if the young blindside can replicate his Super Rugby form in the test arena and Beauden Barrett's extensive work in the back three during training last week could see further amendment.

Hansen isn't about to go crazy and throw all caution to the wind but he and his fellow selectors have been intent on using the final test in the French series as an opportunity to be a touch bolder in terms of personnel.

Their intention was contingent on the series being won and, to a lesser extent, a convincing performance being delivered in Christchurch. Both boxes ticked, the All Blacks can now push ahead in trying to get clarity about a few things that may be relevant later in the year.

"The series has been won and we have talked about taking risks so perhaps we might have an opportunity to make some changes," said Hansen. "But I wouldn't say right now that we will make a lot."

The most pressing question the selectors need answered now is whether they are right to see Ben Smith as the heir apparent at centre. The job is going to be up for grabs, probably for the last five tests of the year, as Conrad Smith will be on sabbatical.

Despite his relative lack of experience at centre, the selectors feel Ben Smith will be a natural. He has timing, incredible acceleration, awareness and a high rugby intelligence.

He was easily the most potent All Black back in the first test and was dedicated, lively and influential again in the 30-0 second test win. The coaches are also aware that backing him in the role will help Smith understand his value to the team: and will also help establish that he's more of a Richard Kahui-type wing-centre than a Cory Jane-type wing-fullback.

The 27-year-old Highlander has set Super Rugby alight yet seems strangely unaware of how much talent he possesses. He is in the midst of contract negotiations to extend his stay in New Zealand beyond 2015 and there is a little nervousness that he may not commit.

Shifting him to centre will see Smith more directly involved in the decision-making and have greater influence on the direction of the All Black attack.

It will be tempting for the All Blacks to revert in New Plymouth to a more expansive, ball-in-hand game earlier: they may suspect the French will be short of motivation and hunger and not so willing or able to build a convincing defensive wall.

Responsibility for reading that will fall on the shoulders of Daniel Carter, who has recovered from a broken hand and will resume his place at first-five.

With Carter back and Kieran Read expected to recover from a blow to his back, there should be enough experience and leadership to encourage the selectors to also give Ben Afeaki a start at tight-head.

- NZ Herald

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