Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Midfield a slow-build project for All Blacks

Talent in abundance as selectors work up combos to fill gulf left by Nonu and Smith.

Patience and understanding will be the keys to the All Blacks bedding in a new midfield combination with Ryan Crotty and Malakai Fekitoa having been flagged as the two most likely to have the first crack against Wales.

The All Blacks have made it their mission to re-establish their dominance this year rather than carry the mindset they are rebuilding, but the challenge of replacing veterans Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith is significant.

There are ready-made and to some extent proven replacements in other areas of the team where long-serving veterans have retired. But the situation is a little less certain in the midfield.

Nonu and Smith established themselves as the first choice pairing in 2008 and went on to become the world's most experienced - playing 60 tests together which included two World Cup finals. Their individual experience, ability and innate understanding of each other enabled them to make endless good decisions and critical plays.

And it's that decision-making and accuracy that the All Blacks know will be hard to replace. Assistant coach Ian Foster, says: "In some ways not a lot changes. We have always looked at players not so much from how many tests they have played or what their experience is - it is more about what areas we feel we can grow them.

"There is probably going to be a lot of game sense and things that are going to happen when those guys go out on to the park that is going to be new to them. We are going to have to work as much as we can on getting them used to those experiences before they happen as such.

"It is a bit different but we have some really good players. Look at the experience of Ryan Crotty and Mala [Fekitoa] has played a lot of tests as well. So there is enough experience to lean on."

While Crotty has had an injury-plagued and relatively quiet Super Rugby campaign, he is a player whom the All Blacks hold in high regard. First capped in 2013, Crotty has been rock solid for the All Blacks in the nine tests he has played.

His game is built on accuracy and sensible decisions. He makes others look good in much the same way Conrad Smith did. The All Blacks are keen to build his confidence and experience and ideally allow him to build an understanding with Fekitoa.

There's an element of double purpose this year, which is to not only develop the individuals, but to start building a number of reliable combinations. While Crotty and Fekitoa will most likely be the preferred option against Wales, that will probably change later in the year when Sonny Bill Williams finishes with his sevens commitments.

Williams, who will confirm this morning that he has signed a three-year deal with the New Zealand Rugby Union, played in tandem with Fekitoa at the World Cup and it's a combination that comes with significant explosive power.

It's probable that the selectors also had a plan to introduce the in-form and hugely promising Charlie Ngatai into the Welsh series off the bench. But that may have to go on hold as Ngatai has been sent home to aid his recovery from continuing concussion symptoms.

He may yet be in contention for the first test but the coaches may feel that because he's missed some of the preparation time, that the better option would be to hand a first test bench opportunity to the raw but supremely athletic Seta Tamanivalu.

The Chiefs centre brings a direct and confrontational nature to his work and much like Fekitoa, he can break the line and play others into space.

- NZ Herald

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