Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

All Blacks: Saili finally gets his chance to sparkle

Youngster's patience rewarded after watching on as mates debut.

The long All Black wait for second five-eighths Francis Saili is almost over.

Since he made the squad more than three months ago, Saili has watched Blues buddies Charles Piutau and Steven Luatua with Matt Todd, Jeremy Thrush and Ben Afeaki, all make their test debuts against France in the June tests.

When Saili damaged his ankle in the training match before the start of the Rugby Championship, Ryan Crotty got the call up and some debut test time in Sydney.

However, Saili should become All Black 1126 on Saturday as one of three starting alterations for the test against Argentina at Waikato Stadium.

"We have complete faith in his ability to do the job. He is a very exciting young player who has a multi-talented skillset that should suit test rugby," coach Steve Hansen said.

"With regard to the Argentinians, we are expecting a very physical encounter but also one that will see them use the flair and talent of their backline. As always, we have put a huge focus on our preparation and we know that anything less will not be good enough to get the performance that we are looking for."

Saili will be the 30th All Black from North Harbour, a union which gave him a chance when Auckland only offered him a development contract. Saili has spent two years across the Bridge although he is returning to Auckland next season.

"He has been great for us and even better since he has been with the All Black group," Harbour coach Liam Barry said.

The 22-year-old has a dazzling step, a useful kicking game and loves to attack. He is an excitement package but like Blues buddy Rene Ranger, he can bring equal clumps of gold and dirt in one movement.

His game remains an absorbing cocktail of high risk and high reward but there is always something happening around Saili.

"Sometimes I think he just tries too hard and that's no fault," Blues coach John Kirwan said. "He always bounces into training and I think he will be a very special player.

"He's an irrepressible player with a lot of skill who needs to find some balance and patience. He's been very patient as everyone else got a go.

"He reminds me of what Ma'a [Nonu] was like 10 years ago."

Nonu's slow recovery from an ankle problem has given Saili his chance in an All Black side alongside the vastly experienced and repaired Daniel Carter, while Charlie Faumuina will move into tighthead prop to replace the injured Owen Franks.

If Franks recovers to play the Springboks next week at Eden Park, it will be his 50th test.

Nonu has carved out a formidable 81-test career with most of his impact coming in the last six years.

He first stepped out for the All Blacks in 2003 as a raw 21-year-old yet four years later when he was omitted from the World Cup campaign, Nonu was battling to get a foothold and had played only 18 internationals - half of them as a substitute.

By then Carter was the backline kingpin after a succession of extraordinary performances. After 95 tests, his work remains at a consistently high standard but injury has bitten more into his production.

Since 2007, Carter has started 51 of the 74 All Black tests as Achilles tendon, groin, calf and hamstring troubles, a cracked hand and a sabbatical have eaten into his availability.

Nonu, Aaron Cruden, Liam Messam, Luke Romano and Franks were not available for this match and wider squad members Frank Halai, Crotty and Brad Shields have been released for ITM Cup matches.

All Blacks v Pumas, Hamilton, 7.35pm Saturday

All Blacks:
Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Francis Saili, Julian Savea, Dan Carter, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, +Richie McCaw, Steven Luatua, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Charlie Faumuina, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Dane Coles, Ben Franks, Wyatt Crockett, Jeremy Thrush, Sam Cane, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Beauden Barrett, Charles Piutau.

Pumas:
J M Hernandez, Gonsalo Camacho, Marcelo Bosch, S Fernandez, Horacio Agulla, Nicolas Sanchez, Martin Landajo, J M Leguizamon, Pablo Matera, +J M F Lobbe, J F Cabello, Manuel Carizza, Juan Figallo, Eusebio Guiazu, Marcos Ayerza. Reserves: Agustin Creevy, Nahuel Lobo, Juan Pablo Orlandi, Mariano Galarza, Benjamin Macome, Tomas Cubelli, Felipe Contepomi.

- NZ Herald

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