Rugby: Smith edges Weepu at halfback

Aaron Smith
Aaron Smith
Halfback was the position that generated the most vigorous debate among the All Black selectors as they picked their team to play Wales, with Aaron Smith getting the nod but with a clear message Piri Weepu is not far behind.

There was also discussion about lock and blindside flanker before head coach Steve Hansen and his assistant Ian Foster opted to pick a side that would have to be judged as being devoid of surprises. Liam Messam retains his place at blindside and the ball-carrying grunt of Luke Romano is preferred to the all-round offering of Brodie Retallick.

"Piri's performance is the one we have been searching for outside probably the Wellington game [when the All Blacks beat Argentina 21-5]," said Hansen.

"His performance against Scotland was outstanding and, not only did we see his experience, but we also saw him getting to the breakdown and clearing the ball the way we would like him to. But at the end of the day Aaron has played well all year and we felt he could give us a good start and Piri could come off the bench."

Hansen had been clear long before the squad left for Europe that the tour would effectively be split into two parts - everyone would be given game time in the first two tests with the selection for Wales and England based primarily on form.

By and large, that is reflected in the team named to play in Cardiff on Sunday morning (NZT) as, despite encouraging performances from the likes of Weepu, Retallick, Victor Vito and Hosea Gear, the men deemed to be the incumbents also played well enough to merit holding their spots.

It would have been tough on Smith had he been demoted to the bench. He wasn't well enough protected by the forwards in Rome.

Likewise, Romano took the game to the Scots and Messam was industrious against a big Italian pack that needed to be subdued and Keven Mealamu wasn't available due to a mild calf strain.

Elsewhere, there was little need for much deliberation. The team pretty much picks itself these days.

Hansen was also conscious of the challenge Wales present. They haven't enjoyed the best of form since June, having lost their past five tests, but having once coached Wales himself, Hansen knows they have been targeting the All Black fixture.

"We know that Wales have been thinking about this game ever since the [World Cup] semifinal last year," he said.

"I don't think they are any different to anyone else. When you are backed into a corner you lose a bit of confidence. Even the great sides lose a lot of confidence. We have heard a lot about how Warren Gatland is coming back but, really, he's been part of the preparation all the way through so I don't see that as being a big game changer.

"But I think this is the game they have had their eye on and perhaps they have dropped the ball because of that. Maybe they didn't care enough about the other games, but we know that every team that plays us really gets up for it and I don't see Wales being any different."

New Zealand team to play Wales at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, on Sunday (6.15am NZT): Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea, Daniel Carter, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw, Liam Messam, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Dane Coles, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Brodie Retallick, Victor Vito, Piri Weepu, Aaron Cruden, Ben Smith.

- By Gregor Paul in Cardiff

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