A powerful pack should provide the foundation for a new-look All Blacks backline to cause havoc against Wales in Auckland on Saturday, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
The All Blacks have bid farewell to a number of top players since last year’s World Cup final, most notably Richie McCaw and Dan Carter. Yet, on Wednesday they still named a match 23 that boasts 720 caps.
The pack, in particular, retains a familiar and formidable look about it. Six players who started in the final will once again do duty up front, with industrious Sam Cane replacing McCaw, while powerful Luke Romano comes into the second row in the absence of Sam Whitelock.
Although the reshuffled Welsh pack has been boosted by the return of captain Sam Warburton, they are going to have their work cut out for them against the New Zealand heavies.
If the All Blacks are able to establish that go-forward up front, then world rugby’s top scrumhalf, Aaron Smith, is likely to spark an attacking onslaught, with the elusive Aaron Cruden slotting in at flyhalf.
In the midfield, the Kiwis will be without their centre stalwarts Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, but they will be able to call on the reliable Ryan Crotty and talented Malakai Fekitoa, who has been outstanding for the Highlanders this season.
Then we come to a back three that would strike fear into most opposition, with giant wingers Julian Savea and Waisake Naholo combining with Ben Smith at fullback.
However, one facet of play that could favour the Welsh may be the goal-kicking, with World Cup star Dan Biggar remaining one of the best place-kickers in the game. By contrast, Cruden is hardly renowned for his accuracy from the kicking tee, and for much of Super Rugby, Damian McKenzie has kicked at goal for the Chiefs.
Wales will also come into the clash a bit more battle hardened after their Six Nations campaign, where they finished as runners-up, but the All Blacks will be determined to start a new era with a ruthless reminder of their world champion status.
Also, one can’t ignore the fact that Wales have never won in New Zealand, while their last victory against the All Blacks came 63 years ago.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: All Blacks 27, Wales 3
In New Zealand: All Blacks 7, Wales 0
All Blacks – 15 Ben Smith, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Seta Tamanivalu.
Wales – 15 Liam Williams, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Hallam Amos, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (c), 6 Ross Moriarty, 5 Alun Wyn Jones, 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Subs: 16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Rob Evans, 18 Tomas Francis, 19 Jake Ball, 20 Ellis Jenkins, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Gareth Anscombe, 23 Scott Williams.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Will Houston (Australia)
Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images