All Blacks stay with Ben Smith for Aussie Test
Wellington: The All Blacks confirmed Ben Smith as their first-choice full-back in the team named Thursday for the opening Rugby Championship Test against Australia, with World Cup winner Israel Dagg finding himself on the outer.
Dagg failed to even make the match-day squad for the clash in Sydney, as coach Steve Hansen stuck with the line-up that completed a 3-0 whitewash against England in June.
The run-on side features only two injury-related changes from the third England Test, with Wyatt Crockett in for the sidelined Tony Woodcock and Conrad Smith returning from a hand injury to demote Malakai Fekitoa to the bench.
Conrad Smith`s return follows Hansen`s regular policy of slotting his injured stars straight back into the team once they are fit, regardless of how their replacement has played.
But he abandoned the practice when it came to choosing a full-back, admitting Ben Smith`s form had been irresistible since he took up the position after Dagg suffered a knee injury in the first Test against England.
"While we have been very happy with Israel Dagg`s performances at 15, Ben has come in and raised the bar to another level," he said.
"The challenge for Israel now is to get his performances -- when he gets the opportunity -- to an even higher level."
Dagg, a 39-test veteran who was a key part of New Zealand`s 2011 World Cup triumph, has endured a patchy season at Super Rugby level, while Smith has consistently produced outstanding performances.
The three New Zealand-Australia Championship Tests also will also decide the trans-Tasman Bledisloe Cup and Hansen said the All Blacks were keen to defend the trophy.
"We always enjoy playing Australia and this Test is no different," he said.
In other team news, Hansen said loose forward Liam Messam was not considered this week because of fatigue and prop Charlie Faumuina was a late withdrawal after coming down with an illness.
Crockett`s promotion to the starting 15 opens the way for the uncapped Joe Moody to potentially make his debut from he bench.
New Zealand (15-1):
Ben Smith; Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma`a Nonu, Julian Savea; Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith; Kieran Reid, Richie McCaw (captain), Jerome Kaino; Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick; Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: Keven Mealamu, Ben Franks, Joe Moody, Steven Luatua, Sam Cane, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Malakai Fekitoa.