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Concussion has, as expected, ruled Barrett out of Saturday’s battle with the Wallabies in Brisbane. It is the first test Barrett has missed since the thrashing of Italy in Rome last November when virtually the entire team was rotated between dual encounters with Ireland.
Barrett’s consistent selection speaks volumes of the esteem in which he is held by the All Blacks. But this is now Sopoaga’s time to shine.
Twenty-seven months have passed since his last lone test start on debut against the Springboks at Ellis Park. Much has changed in that time, including the departures of Dan Carter and Aaron Cruden. He has enjoyed 11 further stints in the black jersey from the bench. Some of those were prolonged but there is no denying the different dynamic attached to controlling a match from the outset.
While the size of challenge differs greatly between Argentina, where he was due to start against the Pumas last month, and Australia’s Suncorp Stadium, where the All Blacks have struggled in recent times, Sopoaga (26) is not the type of character usually flustered.
He proved that long ago in Johannesburg, and in recent performances in New Plymouth and Cape Town where he was composed after replacing Barrett late in the first half last week.
On and off the field, Sopoaga is comfortable in his own skin. He will be excited, not daunted, by this opportunity. In many respects the challenge will be keeping a lid on emotions and staying focused.
With Damian McKenzie set to switch to first five-eighth at the Chiefs next year and with Crusaders playmaker Richie Mo’unga coming into the mix, there is plenty at stake in regards to future selection.
The All Blacks have taken a gamble of sorts by relying on McKenzie as sole cover for Sopoaga from fullback. There is no first-five on the bench — Anton Lienert-Brown and David Havili instead included, with it deemed too soon to throw Mo’unga in after he joined the team on Monday.
Overall, with Waisake Naholo returning on the right wing to replace Nehe Milner-Skudder who came through successful shoulder surgery this week, Steve Hansen has named his strongest available line-up.
That is a nod of respect to the Wallabies, and a signal of how much this match means to the All Blacks despite already locking away the Bledisloe Cup for a 15th straight year.
The other notable selection is on the bench where Canterbury openside Matt Todd is preferred over Ardie Savea in, perhaps, a shift in the pecking order.
Sam Cane, who notches his 50th test, is the clear first-choice but Todd may have leapfrogged Savea for the back-up role.Once again, there is also no Jerome Kaino. The veteran has now been absent for the past seven tests since ceding his position to Liam Squire at the start of the Rugby Championship.
"Both teams have their own goals and expectations. From Australia’s point of view, they’ll be desperate to win as they haven’t done so for some time," Hansen said.
"For us, our goal is to never be satisfied at where we’re at, and that means it’s greater than just the outcome. It’s about how we play, individually and collectively as a unit. We’re always striving to get better every game and this week is no different.
"As always, to do that, our preparation has to be spot on and bone deep. It’s an individual focus for each player. The job of the team management is to facilitate a training week which provides them with clarity and the right amount of intensity so that they can arrive on Saturday ready to hum.
"It’ll be another great opportunity for this young team to show what they’ve learnt throughout the year and playing at Suncorp Stadium will be another fantastic learning experience for them all. It’s a great ground with a lot of tradition and there’ll be huge support for the All Blacks, which we’re looking forward to."
- Liam Napier
All Blacks team
For third Bledisloe test
Kane Hames, Dane Coles, Nepo Laulala, Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Liam Squire, Sam Cane, Kieran Read (c), Aaron Smith, Lima Sopoaga, Rieko Ioane, Sonny Bill Williams, Ryan Crotty, Waisake Naholo, Damian McKenzie. Reserves: Codie Taylor, Wyatt Crockett, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Patrick Tuipulotu, Matt Todd, TJ Perenara, Anton Lienert-Brown, David Havili