Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: All Blacks midfield looking fragile

Malakai Fekitoa is now an almost certain starter on Saturday. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Malakai Fekitoa is now an almost certain starter on Saturday. Photo / Brett Phibbs

If the Wallabies didn't already know the All Blacks' probable midfield selection, they do now following a knee injury to George Moala which has ruled him out for up to four weeks.

No Moala means the All Blacks effectively have no choice now but to pair Ryan Crotty with Malakai Fekitoa and most likely put the uncapped Anton Leinert-Brown on the bench for the opening Bledisloe rugby clash in Sydney on Saturday.

The All Blacks may have been planning to pair Crotty and Fekitoa anyway - this being the combination they picked for the first and second tests of the season.

But a nasty facial cut to Fekitoa early in the second test ruled him out of the third against Wales, and in his absence Moala came into the No 13 jersey and gave a powerful and accomplished performance that may have pushed him into the job longer term.

That option, though, has gone after Moala took a blow to his knee in training on Monday and was shortly after told he had damaged medial ligaments.

All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster wouldn't reveal what the coaching team were thinking in regard to their midfield set-up had Moala been fit. Nor was he of the view that the injury to Moala, which comes only a week after Sonny Bill Williams was ruled out for the remainder of the year with a torn calf, had left the All Blacks in any particular state of desperation or panic.

"It is pretty disappointing," said Foster. "He [Moala] came in as a replacement player in June, really took his opportunity well and then he did an elbow [in that same test] so he has been out for a while. He came back in fantastic shape so signs are looking good but he's had a temporary setback.

"But that happens in this business so he will go away and get that right and hopefully he'll come charging back sooner or later."

Given the stability and experience the All Blacks had in their midfield the last time they played the Wallabies, the new look combo will be viewed as potentially vulnerable.

For the better part of the last decade, the All Blacks were able to field Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith in tandem and create one of, if not the game's best midfield partnership.

Replacing those two individually and as a combination was always going to be one of the bigger challenges of 2016, but Foster remains confident that despite the various injury setbacks, progress has been about as good as could be expected.

"It is certainly different," he says of the probable midfield make-up. "People are used to the Nonu-Smith and chuck Sonny Bill in there as well. I wouldn't say we are vulnerable but we are building combinations.

"I don't know whether that is an area they [Wallabies] are going to target or not but it is an area where there is no hiding the fact that we have players there who are less experienced than the players who have been there in the past.

"But if you look at the guys we have got there, well Ryan [Crotty] has a number of tests under his belt and Malakai is the same."

- NZ Herald

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