Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Wales series best time to see how new boys cope

New Zealand All Blacks front rowers Joe Moody, Owen Franks and Codie Taylor, at the end of the All Blacks first training session. Photo / Brett Phibbs
New Zealand All Blacks front rowers Joe Moody, Owen Franks and Codie Taylor, at the end of the All Blacks first training session. Photo / Brett Phibbs

As much as the All Blacks need to win their three-test series against Wales this month, they also need to prepare for the Rugby Championship.

There's no question Wales are a good side. They can play a bit of rugby and have a handful of players who will be back next year with the Lions. But just is true is that tougher challenges lie ahead and the All Blacks have to be conscious that the series this June has dual objectives.

The All Blacks need to establish new patterns, new structures and gain some sense of what their strongest side looks like.

There is a new captain and leadership team and they need time to develop their skills and understanding of one another.

Players such as Sam Cane, Aaron Cruden and Malakai Fekitoa have waited what for them will feel like an age to be given their big chance to cement their starting places. They need game time to settle into their new roles.

The All Blacks are, however, also aware that in their ranks are six new caps and a few others who have only brief test experience.

If possible, coach Steve Hansen would like to give the new boys a taste of the action. There would be reluctance to head into the Rugby Championship without having seen how the likes of Liam Squire, Elliot Dixon and Ardie Savea cope with the step up.

It would be a huge ask if one or more of them had to make their debut against the Wallabies or Springboks. The selectors would rather see them gently phased in against Wales and this will be one of the more fascinating sub-plots of the series.

How much of a taste will Hansen be willing to give the new players? With the final test of the series in Dunedin, the All Blacks might sense that would be the time to take a few selection risks.

The Welsh could be struggling by then and on the fast track, that's maybe an opportunity to start home town boys Dixon and Lima Sopoaga.

Savea is probably shaping up for a bench role in all three tests. His pace, agility and ability to make things happen - unconventional things - is a supremely good weapon for the All Blacks to hold back for the final 20 minutes of each test.

If Charlie Ngatai can recover from his concussion symptoms, his form has been so good that the selectors will be keen to reward him. He's capable at both 12 or 13 and will presumably be given at least one crack off the bench in the series.

The same is true of Israel Dagg. His form has been compelling and with his proven ability under the high ball - Wales will kick plenty - there will be a case to make that he should be involved.

But it is hard to see how he fits in. There will be a reluctance to shift Ben Smith from fullback and Hansen hasn't been willing to use Dagg as a wing. And if Dagg doesn't start, finding a bench spot for him isn't easy, as Beauden Barrett provides cover at both first-five and fullback.

It's unlikely that Damian McKenzie will be seen on the field. The 21-year-old is expected to be kept under wraps for the series and is largely with the squad to get used to life as an All Black and fast track his game understanding and skill execution.

- NZ Herald

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