Patrick McKendry is a rugby and boxing writer for the Herald.

Rugby: All Blacks' rookie midfield a target for Wales

Steve Hansen, in his first official engagement as All Blacks coach of the year following his team's World Cup success, yesterday called on his team to go to a new level. One of his biggest tasks in getting there will be moulding a new midfield to replace Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith.

The squad announcement of 32 players for the three-test series against Wales next month has brought into sharp relief the two big holes those two veterans have left.

The All Blacks have depth aplenty in the front row, and loose forwards - with the outstanding form of Ardie Savea, Liam Squire and Elliot Dixon recognised - locks, halfbacks, and outside backs, but if there is one area that Wales coach Warren Gatland will think he can exploit, it is a relatively inexperienced midfield, which will almost certainly see Ryan Crotty and Malakai Fekitoa start the first test at Eden Park on June 11.

Behind these two are Charlie Ngatai, who has played one test and is recovering from concussion, and the uncapped Seta Tamanivalu.

Blues midfielder George Moala, one of the standouts of the Manu Samoa test in Apia last year, is in the next tier after inconsistent form this season.

The contrast between what could be described as an embarrassment of riches in the pack, and the depth in the midfield, is obvious.

Replacing the partnership of Nonu, who played 103 tests, and Smith, who played 94, clearly isn't going to happen overnight, but Hansen admitted that the clock is ticking. The former Hurricanes pair, two very different players and characters, combined for a world record 60 tests and were a bedrock around which the All Blacks established their attack and defence.

"Midfield is [the thing] people have been talking about with Conrad and Ma'a leaving and Sonny [Bill Williams] not being available," Hansen said. "We've got a young group in that midfield and we've got to get a combination going pretty quickly."

Crotty, who has played 15 tests, including, famously, one against Ireland in Dublin in 2013 when he came on as a replacement and scored the try in the left corner which Aaron Cruden converted to break Irish hearts, is a reliable player who has always performed in the black jersey.

Outside him at centre, Fekitoa, with 13 caps, is the more explosive player. Again, he has consistently impressed for the All Blacks. It could take time and patience, but the All Blacks coaches will back themselves to find the right formula while Williams - set to announce that he is re-committing to New Zealand - remains with the sevens squad.

"Our mindset is not one of re-building, but re-establishing," Hansen said. "That's our challenge - to take this team to a higher level from where we left after the Rugby World Cup."

How the All Blacks respond to their unprecedented back-to-back success at the World Cup last November and the loss of so many players will be fascinating, and one key will be how quickly Hansen can get his new midfield up and running.

- NZ Herald

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