All Blacks: Smith's form kept him on wing - Hansen

By Patrick McKendry of APNZ in New Plymouth

Ben Smith's excellent form on the right wing for the All Blacks is the main reason why he will wear the No14 jersey again in the third test against France on Saturday, with Steve Hansen suggesting Rene Ranger is more likely to make the move to centre.

In what was a minor surprise, Conrad Smith, on sabbatical at the end of the year, has retained his position in the midfield, the All Blacks coach saying there was plenty of time to bed in new players to what in the past has been a problem area for the national team.

Ranger, who confirmed today that he will take up a contract with Montpellier at the end of the year - he will still be available to play in the Rugby Championship for the All Blacks - has replaced Julian Savea on the left wing for the match at New Plymouth's Yarrow Stadium.

With the test series won, Hansen has made five changes to the starting XV in Christchurch, although one was forced - Dane Coles' calf strain ruling him out, with Andrew Hore starting at hooker instead.

The others involved Victor Vito coming in for Liam Messam on the blindside flank, halfback Piri Weepu replacing Aaron Smith, and first-five Dan Carter back from injury to replace Aaron Cruden.

There are also three changes to the bench, but it's the change Hansen didn't make which provoked a fair bit of discussion this morning.

"We thought about playing Ben at centre, but he's been playing particularly well on the wing so we didn't want to change too much," Hansen said. "We've got a lot of respect for this French side. Apart from two really outstanding tries the other night they were still in the game right throughout it."

Asked whether Ben Smith could move to centre in order to give Charles Piutau his first test cap off the bench, Hansen replied: "We might give Rene a run there, but not Benny. We've come to the conclusion that we're really loving what he's doing on the wing and giving him the opportunity to cement that is good for him and good for us."

Hansen insisted the All Blacks had options to replace a midfield which in Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith is one of the most experienced around - this will be their 46th test together which places them second on the all-time list of international midfield combinations. Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy hold the record with 50 tests together.

"We've got a lot of options, it's just a matter of when we do it. We looked at Ben Smith and Tamati Ellison in Scotland [last year] and we were really happy with what we got there.

"But ... Ben Smith is really establishing himself as one of our important All Blacks. He's playing tremendously well on the wing. We just didn't want to burden him with another positional change at this stage. We wanted him to go out and have another really good game.

"Conrad's not going to be there at the end of the year but there's plenty of time to put Ben at centre if we need to. At that stage we'll also have Cory Jane back hopefully to go on that tour. I'm not too bothered when it happens... Ben has got the capabilities of just jumping in straight away."

Hansen said Savea had played one of his best tests last weekend in Christchurch but needed a rest, and Matt Todd's inclusion on the bench was aimed at providing similar relief for Sam Cane.

"He's had a big workload against a big, physical pack, and he'll have a big workload after this. By bringing Matty on to the bench it gives us the opportunity to give him a breather a bit later in the game. And it's good for Matt, we find out a bit more about him at this level, too."

Blues loose forward/lock Steven Luatua is also in line to win his first cap off the bench.

All Blacks
Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Rene Ranger, Dan Carter, Piri Weepu, Kieran Read (c), Sam Cane, Victor Vito, Luke Romano, Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks, Andrew Hore, Wyatt Crockett. Reserves: Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock, Ben Franks, Matt Todd, Steven Luatua, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Beauden Barrett, Charles Piutau.

France
Brice Dulin, Marc Andreu, Florian Fritz, Wesley Fofana, Yoann Huget, Remi Tales, Jean Marc Doussain, Antonie Claassen, Damien Chouly, Thierry Dusautoir (c), Yoann Maestri, Alexandre Flanquart, Nicolas Mas, Benjamin Kayser, Thomas Domingo. Reserves: Dimitri Szarzewski, Eddy Ben Arous, Luc Ducalcon, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Bernard Le Roux, Maxime Machenaud, Camille Lopez, Mathieu Bastareaud

- APNZ

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