International Rugby

Sonny Bill’s back in black

Sonny Bill Williams and Damian McKenzie will start in a revamped All Blacks backline for the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup opener against Australia in Sydney.

Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty also return from injury to complete the quartet of changes to the backline that started the All Blacks 15-all draw against the British and Irish Lions.

Williams, red carded 24 minutes into the second Test against the Lions in Wellington, was suspended for the series decider in Auckland, while Smith and Crotty were both sidelined with injury.

McKenzie didn’t play against the Lions and was not originally in the All Blacks Rugby Championship squad. He was originally going to join the group post the two Tests against Australia when (Ben) Smith is unavailable because of a sabbatical that will see him miss the rest of the international year.

The selection of McKenzie at fullback is surprising as All Blacks coach Steve Hansen had indicated McKenzie was seen as a flyhalf option more than in the No 15 jumper.

The All Blacks coach also stated that there would be greater use of the squad to negotiate the Rugby Championship as the All Blacks look to beat the fatigue that has troubled them on their end of year tour to the Northern Hemisphere.

Notable omissions for Saturday include Israel Dagg and Jerome Kaino, with Highlanders flank Liam Squire starting as the blindside option.

Jonathan Kaplan’s Bledisloe Cup Best XV

New Zealand Herald’s Rugby Specialist Gregor Paul wrote that Kaino’s failure to make the match day squad was the big selection news. It could be the start of the end for the back-to-back World Cup winner, who is 34 years-old.

‘His non-inclusion hints at a few things. The first is that the coaches are maybe a little concerned about his discipline and tackling technique in this zero tolerance world around striking the head,’ wrote Paul.

‘Kaino was yellow carded in the third test against the Lions and again for the Blues in Tokyo and admitted to the Herald on Tuesday that he’s accepted the need to change his tackle height.

‘The selectors may also have questioned whether they got enough out of Kaino during the series. He made a number of dominant tackles and carried with his usual aggression and effectiveness.

But did he do it enough? Did he impose himself for long enough periods and bring the consistency of energy that the All Blacks have every right to expect from their blindside.’

Paul added that the week is a big moment in Kaino’s illustrious career.

‘He won’t enjoy not playing, he won’t enjoy feeling that the coaches have started to look at their other options at blindside.

‘Maybe the coaching panel came out of the Lions series review undecided about Kaino’s overall contribution but feel that it wouldn’t do any harm for the veteran to be in the stands in Sydney, as a means to ask himself – or confirm in his own mind – how strong his desire is to still be an All Black.’

New Zealand: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody
Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 Anton Lienert-Brown

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