All Blacks: Steven Luatua gets chance to impress at no.8

By Gregor Paul in Rome

As much as everyone wishes he could, Jerome Kaino can't play for ever. How much longer his body can hold up to the pounding it takes is guesswork and the business of finding a long term replacement for him is starting to get serious. Both Elliot Dixon and Steven Luatua have been asked to audition this weekend in Rome.

It's that simple for both players - they have been told to get amongst it and leave the Italians in no doubt they were there. Their job is to impose themselves, to knock men back in the tackle and to run through them when they carry.

It's not a complex role they have been asked to play, but in the case of Lutaua in particular, it is one that has been beyond him in his previous All Blacks appearances.

He's won 14 caps since 2013 and while he's always looked good when he's been in space and won his lineout ball, he never struck the fear of God into anyone. For a big man - he's 1.96m and 113kg - he's not yet shown the art of intimidating people with his collision work and this is the bit head coach Steve Hansen wants to see change in Rome.

"My big encouragement is for him to be physical," says Hansen. "If he can be really physical and show us that he can do that job at this level of rugby then I'm not too worried about where he can play.

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"He can play No 6, No 8 and probably lock off the bench if we needed him to. We don't have a designated position for him, but for this side the best slot for him was No 8. We need some real physicality from him."

Hansen has been willing to be patient with Luatua, but only up to a point. Few players settle quickly into All Blacks life and immediately take to test football. Luatua earned his call-up in 2013 on the back of a supremely good Super Rugby campaign and played okay in his test appearances that year.

He didn't push on as much as the coaches wanted in 2014 and they left him out of the end of year tour party - feeling he would benefit more by staying in Auckland to improve his strength and conditioning.

Injury and a lack of form prevented him returning until this tour - his call-up coming after he began in the final rounds of Super Rugby to play with the sort of presence the coaches were looking for.

They felt they had to being him back to see if he could now play with the same physicality for the All Blacks as he did the Blues.

"I think for anyone coming into the All Blacks it is an overwhelming time and not everyone has got the mental fortitude for the game to cope with it straight away," says Hansen.

"Hence why we try to give people as much time in the environment as we can so that when they do come out to play they have got the confidence and the self belief to be able to go and perform at the level we want them too.

"But Steven has had numerous opportunities and probably the reason I am saying we need him to be physical is that is the one thing that is missing in his game. He's a very, very good athlete but the real physical quality that we need from him is what we need.

"We are looking for another Jerome Kaino and he [Luatua] is in a battle with [Liam] Squire and Dixon who have both shown us they have got that and then there are others coming underneath who have also got some ability in that area. So Steve has really got to show us that he's that man and this is his opportunity."

The matchday 23 is (with Test caps in brackets):
1. Wyatt Crockett (55)
2. Codie Taylor (12)
3. Charlie Faumuina (43)
4. Patrick Tuipulotu (11)
5. Scott Barrett (1)
6. Elliot Dixon (2)
7. Sam Cane - captain (38)
8. Steven Luatua (14)
9. Tawera Kerr-Barlow (24)
10. Aaron Cruden (44)
11. Waisake Naholo (9)
12. Anton Lienert-Brown (6)
13. Malakai Fekitoa (21)
14. Israel Dagg (58)
15. Damian McKenzie (1)

16. Liam Coltman *
17. Joe Moody (21)
18. Ofa Tu'ungafasi (3)
19. Brodie Retallick (57)
20. Matt Todd (6)
21. Aaron Smith (55)
22. Lima Sopoaga (5)
23. Rieko Ioane *

- NZ Herald

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