New Zealand coach Steve Hansen has opted against handing out any new debuts in naming his team for Saturday’s first Test against Wales.
In their first Test since winning last year’s World Cup, the All Blacks coach has made six changes in all to the team that started the final. There are no new caps, with Aaron Cruden beating off the challenge of Lima Sopoaga and Beauden Barrett for the coveted 10 shirt.
As expected, Malakai Fekitoa and Ryan Crotty form a new-look midfield partnership, taking over from legends Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith who retired from international duty following last year’s World Cup.
Crusaders’ Luke Romano comes in for clubmate Sam Whitelock at second row, the experienced lock ruled out with a hamstring strain. The front row, meanwhile, boasts a wealth of experience in Owen Franks, Dane Coles and Joe Moody. Sam Cane takes over from the legendary Ritchie McCaw at 7, with new skipper Kieran Read named at 8 and the bruising Jerome Kaino at 6.
Waisake Naholo comes in at 14, with the speedster having the unenviable task of stepping into the shoes of the 2015 World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year Nehe Milner-Skudder, who is out for the season with the shoulder injury he suffered back in March. Ben Smith and Julian Savea complete a highly dangerous back three.
The only uncapped players in Hansen’s match day 23 are centre Sete Tamanivalu and Ardie Savea. Tamanivalu has enjoyed an excellent season in Super Rugby. Born in Fiji, the 23-year-old Chiefs star is an explosive runner and has caught the eye with his strength and power.
Flanker Savea, for his part, is the younger brother of Julian and has been superb for the Hurricanes with his athleticism and pace, and has been compared to All Black great Michael Jones. Savea will give Hansen a dynamic option off the bench.
Charles Famuina and Wyatt Crockett offer cover at tighthead and loosehead respectively, with dynamic Chiefs hooker Nathan Harris covering the number two shirt. Powerful Blues lock Patrick Tuipulotu is second row replacement.
The versatile Beauden Barrett offers Hansen plenty of creativity off the bench, with the dangerous TJ Perenera covering Aaron Smith at scrum-half.
Despite the addition of the newer faces, the squad has plenty of experience and boasts an average of 31 caps per player. Talking about his selection, Hansen said:
“Whilst the opposition might believe that we’re vulnerable because it’s our first Test and we have lost some experienced players, we don’t have that mindset.
“We have some very excited players who have trained well during the week and are getting the opportunity to make a statement.”
“We’re well aware that this is a good Welsh team and not one that we’ll underestimate and we’re looking forward to the challenge that comes with playing test match football, which involves high-pressure moments and huge physicality.”
New Zealand XV v Wales: Ben Smith; Waisake Naholo, Malakai Fekitoa, Ryan Crotty, Julian Savea; Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith; Joe Moody, Dane Coles, Owen Franks; Luke Romano, Brodie Retallick; Jerome Kaino, Sam Cane, Kieran Read.
Replacements: Nathan Harris, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Patrick Tuipulotu, Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Seta Tamanivalu.
Hefin Jones, Pundit Arena