Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Eyes on Midfield

Coach Steve Hansen is set on developing the midfield by using Ma'a Nonu and Ben Smith together.

All Black coach Steve Hansen is not one to throw his weight around - not these days anyway - but he's going to find it hard to resist putting pressure on the Highlanders to use the last few weeks of Super rugby to pair Ma'a Nonu and Ben Smith together in the midfield.

Nonu and Smith are expected to be the All Blacks' centre pairing in New Plymouth for the third test against France - a combination that is likely to be preferred later in the season when Conrad Smith takes a four-month sabbatical.

Hansen knows the All Blacks have a notoriously bad track record in the modern age when it comes to developing midfield options. They went to the 1999, 2003 and 2007 World Cups without having identified any contingency plans for their midfield - a mistake Hansen is determined to avoid in 2015.

Ideally, the All Blacks would have liked to see Nonu and Smith paired extensively throughout Super rugby already. The next best thing they can hope for is that the Highlanders - who are dead and buried in the competition - use their remaining three games to do the national side a giant favour.

Hansen won't make any direct requests as he knows intervention is counterproductive. The logic of the central contracting model is players can be managed in the best interests of the national side. Smith is a versatile and gifted footballer who can swap jerseys relatively easily, but if his future lies at centre in the test arena then it would be preferable if he was mostly picked there at Super rugby.

All Hansen can hope for is that the Highlanders see the potential of the combination this Saturday. He'll also hope the Highlanders are conscious that they haven't yet locked in either Nonu or Smith beyond this season. Selling Nonu and Smith a vision of them building their midfield combination may be a more compelling retention tool for the Highlanders than the chequebook.

Nonu revealed last year that a key factor in him deciding to re-sign with the New Zealand Rugby Union was his conviction that his All Black partnership with Conrad Smith hadn't fully developed. There was some serious overseas cash on the table, but Nonu rejected it.

Smith admitted last year the time was coming for him to specialise in one position and reassurances from the Highlanders that he can play the rest of this campaign and beyond at centre, would probably be enough for him to extend his contract.

- NZ Herald

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