Steve Hansen hails Smith best in world as he goes head to head with Murray
All Blacks make five changes, with Retallick and Whitelock returning to secondrow
New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Allowing for the knee injury which has ruled out Jerome Kaino, akin to Ireland, the All Blacks’ selection has fallen along anticipated lines. The main talking point, such as it was, is the return of Aaron Smith, despite an off-colour effort when New Zealand suffered their first ever defeat to Ireland in Chicago.
Fit again, the first-choice locks Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock return, while the centres Anton Lienert-Brown and Malakai Fekitoa are retained from the jaunt in Rome for the injured Ryan Crotty and George Moala. The fifth change from Chicago sees, as expected, Israel Dagg come in for Waisake Naholo.
A bit like the All Blacks en bloc, Smith will hardly be as off-colour as he was that day in Soldier Field, when substituted in the 45th minute after his wayward pass led to Ireland going upfield for Simon Zebo’s try to make the score 30-8.
Within five minutes of coming on, TJ Perenara scored the try which kick-started the All Blacks comeback. Even so, Hansen has retained Smith, perhaps on the premise that dropping him now would do more damage.
They’ll also know Smith will be mustard keen to prove a point given the influence of Conor Murray in Soldier Field, when dummying past Smith for his try (Smith also missed a try-saving tackle on Rob Kearney for Ireland’s second try). That Murray outplayed Smith clearly rankles almost as much with Hansen himself.
“I can tell about why we went with him again,” said Hansen. “It’s because we think he’s the best halfback in the world. You guys probably think Conor Murray is, so that’ll be how the battle goes, I suppose.
“Who goes well enough up front, halfbacks usually play well if the tight five do the job; as do loose forwards for that matter. Both tight fives have to provide a platform for their halfbacks, who then allow their standoffs, or five-eighths as we call them, to control the game. In Chicago, Sexton and Murray controlled the game because of the platform they had up front.
“As long as I’ve been watching rugby, which is a long time until the day I die, that won’t change. Rugby is about winning the battle up front.”
Hansen repeated his assertion that the All Blacks are underdogs based on the sides’ last meeting, even though, as ever under his watch, they are warm favourites.
He expected his sides’ discipline and lineout to be better, but asked whether his counterpart Joe Schmidt, might have a new trick or two, admitted: “I’m sure he’ll have [something] up his sleeve other than just his arm. I’m sure he’s got a trick there.
“He enjoys coming up with [them], that’s how he coaches and it’s always been his coaching style. He likes to analyse the opposition and find ways how to try and open you up and he’s pretty good at it. So, again, we have to go out and do our jobs well right across the park. It starts at the set-piece, both on our ball and their ball, and we will try and take away their time so they don’t have as much as they did in Chicago to make the right decisions.”
Regarding Schmidt’s influence on Ireland, Hansen added: “He’s got them playing smarter rugby. Ireland to me have always been a very passionate nation on and off the park. They’re always good at getting behind a cause and they’re good people; I’ve a lot of time for them and I enjoy their company.
“As rugby players, I think they have improved their fitness and understanding of how they want to play and how they want to do things.
“Joe has been a big part of that. Their whole coaching staff are challenging them to understand why and how and when. They’re not big words, but they’re pretty important when it comes to making big decisions. So, they’re making better decisions and therefore the opposition who are playing them, whoever they may be, has to do the same.”