Hansen backs ‘three best’ loose forwards to fire for All Blacks

Australia’s James O’Connor completes his return from international exile

Australia v New Zealand, Optus Stadium, Perth, Saturday, 10.45am (Irish time). Live on Sky Sports Action

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen believes Kieran Read, Sam Cane and Ardie Savea are New Zealand's three best loose forwards, and is keen to see the trio take on Australia after naming them as his starting back row for Saturday's test in Perth.

While skipper Read has been New Zealand’s first choice number eight for the last decade and Cane has made the openside flanker spot his own since the retirement of Richie McCaw, Savea is not an experienced blindside flanker. More usually found at openside or number eight, the hard-running, ball-stealing 25-year-old has been given a chance to lock up the number six shirt for the World Cup as Hansen continues his “risk and reward” experimentation policy.

“I don’t think there’s much risk, and I think there’s a massive amount of reward,” Hansen explained when asked about his selection in Perth on Thursday.


“Having your three best loose forwards on the park, there’s one reward for a start.

“Two really good ball carriers and another one who’s really not bad. You’ve got two people who can get over the breakdown really well, and another one that’s not bad. When you combine them you come up with a pretty good package.”

Hansen made six changes to his starting line-up for Saturday's Rugby Championship clash, but retained Richie Mo'unga at flyhalf, with Beauden Barrett again slotting in at fullback – another of his "risk and reward" gambits.

Lock Brodie Retallick dislocated his shoulder in the 16-16 draw with South Africa two weeks ago, forcing one of the changes with Scott Barrett coming back from a hand injury to join Sam Whitelock in the second row.

Sonny Bill Williams, who has been sent back to provincial rugby to improve his match fitness, was replaced at inside centre by Anton Lienert-Brown, with Ngani Laumape coming onto the bench.

In other changes, Aaron Smith replaced TJ Perenara at scrumhalf, and Dane Coles got the start at hooker, with Codie Taylor backing him up in a reversal of their roles against the Springboks.

“It’s a one-two punch, and we’re just trying to work out which way to play it,” Hansen said of his hookers, adding that the team for Saturday was “reasonably close” to the side he wanted to put out in the World Cup opener against South Africa.

International exile

Meanwhile, Versatile but controversial back James O'Connor completed his return from international exile on Thursday when he was named at outside centre for Australia against New Zealand.

Saturday’s game will be O’Connor‘s first test start since he played against Argentina in the same city in 2013, after which he was escorted from Perth airport by police because of an altercation with airline staff.

O'Connor had his Rugby Australia contract torn up after that incident, but Wallabies coach Michael Cheika brought him back into the green and gold as a replacement in the 16-10 victory over Argentina two weeks ago.

The 29-year-old, who as a teenager nervelessly slotted a conversion from the sidelines to give the Wallabies a win over the All Blacks in Hong Kong in 2010, has played along the Australia backline but never before in the number 13 shirt.

“I think James will present something different, something we haven‘t seen, so something our opponents haven‘t seen either,” Cheika told a news conference in Perth.

“He’s gone well in training and I’m looking forward to seeing him out there. I haven’t known him much but since he’s come into the squad he’s made me have faith in him.”

His inclusion at the expense of the dropped Tevita Kuridrani was one of four changes made by Cheika for the first of back-to-back Bledisloe Cup tests against the world champions.

Cheika has also shown a forgiving nature by giving Tolu Latu the start at hooker in place of Folau Fainga’a only weeks after he was convicted of drunk driving.

Allan Alaalatoa comes in at tighthead prop for Sekope Kepu, who is dropped from the squad, in a new-look front row in which only Scott Sio has retained his spot.

Nic White returns at scrumhalf in a halves combination with his old ACT Brumbies team mate Christian Lealiifano, but there is no place in the matchday squad for flyhalf Bernard Foley for the second test in a row.

Five years

Foley has been a fixture in the number 10 shirt for most of the last five years, and although he would still be expected to travel to Japan for his third World Cup next month, his stock with selectors has clearly plummeted.

“It was tight but Christian did his job last weekend,” Cheika added.“It was his first game back in international colours for a while. He distributed well, made his tackles, took his kicks at goal.”

Someone whose stock remains high despite a lack of game-time this year is loose forward David Pocock, who has been struggling with a calf injury.Cheika said they had always been focused on getting him back for next week's test in Auckland.

“He’s trained all week with the team now. So he’s getting very close. I’m confident he’ll be available next week.”

AUSTRALIA: Kurtley Beale; Reece Hodge, James O'Connor, Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete; Christian Lealiifano, Nic White; Scott Sio, Tolu Latu, Allan Alaalatoa; Izack Rodda, Rory Arnold; Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Michael Hooper (capt), Isi Naisarani.

Replacements: Folau Fainga'a, James Slipper, Taniela Tupou, Adam Coleman,  Luke Jones, Will Genia, Matt Toomua, Tom Banks.

NEW ZEALAND: Beauden Barrett, Ben Smith, Jack Goodhue, Anton Lienert-Brown,  Rieko Ioane; Richie Mo'unga,  Aaron Smith; Joe Moody, Dane Coles, Owen Franks; Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock; Ardie Savea, Sam Cane, Kieran Read (capt).

Replacements: Codie Taylor, Atu Moli, Angus Ta'avao, Patrick Tuipulotu, Matt Todd, TJ Perenara, Ngani Laumape, George Bridge.

Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France). Assistant Referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Shuhei Kubo (Japan). TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa).