Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

All Blacks: Smith still a chance

Conrad Smith. Photo / Getty Images
Conrad Smith. Photo / Getty Images

The door has been left ajar for Conrad Smith to return from the birth of his first child to play for the All Blacks against the Wallabies tomorrow, but Malakai Fekitoa will be preparing to start in the midfield in what will be only his third test.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen received a call at 2am today that Smith's wife Lee-Ann was in labour, with the 32-year-old put on an early flight from Sydney back to New Zealand, only hours after he arrived with the squad. The baby was due to be born in a fortnight.

Hansen said Smith was still a possibility to play in the crucial Bledisloe Cup test at ANZ Stadium in which the All Blacks will try to set a new world record for consecutive test wins by a tier one nation.

However, the distraction of Smith slotting back into the team would be such that Fekitoa, 22, is a near certainty to start his second test. Hansen said he wasn't "holding his breath" over Smith.

"A whole lot of things would have to happen," Hansen said. "Everything over there would have to be great.

He would have to be mentally in tune and then we would have to get him back here some time by at least one or two o'clock on Saturday afternoon.

"We're not worried about that at the moment, we're just hoping that everything goes well for them. It's their first child so it's an exciting time for them."

Crusader Ryan Crotty is travelling as a back-up and will probably replace Fekitoa on the reserves bench.

Hansen added of the late disruption to his carefully laid plans: "We've had a few in the past. This is just another one. If you expect things to happen then you plan for them. Malakai started the last test match so he'll be fine and I'm sure Ryan Crotty is exciting about getting on the plane.

"It was a pretty big challenge last time too against England," Hansen said of the challenge in front of Fekitoa. "We've got every faith in him, he'll be fine. The game won't be won out there, it will be won up front. If we do things right up front it will be easy for him. If we don't do things right up front it will be tough for all of them."

Fekitoa was outstanding for the Highlanders this season. His test debut came against England at Eden Park when he played the final moments of the tight match, and he impressed in his start against England a fortnight later in Hamilton.

A quick learner with a cool head, Hansen will back him to slot in seamlessly with midfield partner Ma'a Nonu, but there is no doubt his opposite, the experienced Adam Ashley-Cooper, will look to exploit Fekitoa's inexperience. Smith, a defensive rock for the All Blacks, has played 77 tests.

Hansen is picking a boy weighing "about six pounds".

- NZ Herald

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