Auckland, New Zealand, Jun 14 – Sonny Bill Williams returns and Aaron Smith is restored as New Zealand’s first-choice scrum-half for Friday’s clash with Samoa — a dress rehearsal for the first Test against the British and Irish Lions the following week.
Fullback Ben Smith will lead the side in place of the unavailable Kieran Read for the main feature in the double-header evening at Auckland’s Eden Park with Wales and Tonga playing the curtain-raiser.
Smith will lead a vastly experienced New Zealand unit containing 871 Test caps while also including two new All Blacks Jordie Barrett and Vaea Fifita on the bench.
Regular skipper Read (thumb), back up flyhalf Aaron Cruden (knee)and centre Ryan Crotty (ribs) were not considered but are expected to be available for the three Lions Tests.
Code hopper Williams, a standout performer when the Auckland Blues beat the Lions last week, returns to the All Blacks for the first time in two years after focussing on rugby sevens at the Olympics after the 2015 World Cup final and then suffering a crippling Achilles injury.
Aaron Smith is back in favour after losing his starting spot last year to TJ Perenara when his form slumped following publicity about a tryst in an airport toilet last year.
– Samoan challenge –
New Zealand have won all six Tests they have played against Samoa, with the lowest margin 25-16 when they last met in Apia two years ago.
But coach Steve Hansen said there was no room for complacency.
“Samoa is about to kick off the qualifying stage of their Rugby World Cup campaign, so this will make them even more dangerous,” Hansen said.
“The Samoans are always a challenge and will play with a high level of physicality and skill. At the very minimum, we will need to match that.”
Hansen said Ben Smith, the All Blacks vice captain, was the “logical choice” to fill in for Read and had proven leadership skills with the Otago Highlanders in Super Rugby.
Ardie Savea will slot into Read’s backrow position with Jerome Kaino on the blindside flank for his first game since being sidelined after knee surgery eight weeks ago.
With Liam Squire, like Read also out with a broken thumb, Vaea Fifita has been named on the bench after being initially named as injury cover when the full squad of 33 was named last week.
Hansen said Fifita and Jordie Barrett were both like to get game time with the prospect of three Barrett brothers on the field at the same time.
Lock Scott Barrett is also on the bench with Beauden Barrett the starting flyhalf.
Hooker Dane Coles was not considered while he continues to suffer concussion symptoms and the All Blacks will start with the all Crusaders front row of Joe Moody, Codie Taylor and Owen Franks who were repeatedly penalised when they played the Lions a week ago.
However, assistant coach Ian Foster did not believe scrumming technique was a concern.
“We’re scrummaging the way that we’ve been scrummaging and we’ve got to adapt and adjust to whatever happens on the park so it’s more about us making sure we are adapting to interpretations,” Foster said.
“But in terms of legality, and all that, we’ve got no concerns.”
New Zealand (15-1): Ben Smith (capt); Israel Dagg, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sonny Bill Williams, Julian Savea; Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Ardie Savea, Sam Cane (capt.), Jerome Kaino; Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick; Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody.
Replacements: Nathan Harris, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Scott Barrett, Vaea Fifita, TJ Perenara, Lima Sopoaga, Jordie Barrett.