Rugby Union 2 years ago

All Blacks midfield pair on notice

  • All Blacks midfield pair on notice

    AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - JUNE 09: Head Coach Steve Hansen talks to the media during a New Zealand All Blacks media conference at The Heritage on June 9, 2016 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

The shadow of Sonny Bill Williams looms over the candidates vying for All Blacks midfield slots later this year.

Coach Steve Hansen has confirmed that Williams will rejoin the Test squad when his sevens commitments finish at the Rio Olympics.

The Olympic sevens tournament ends nine days before the All Blacks open the Rugby Championship against the Wallabies in Sydney.

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Centres Malakai Fekitoa and Ryan Crotty have done a solid, if unspectacular, job in replacing departed greats Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu in the first two Test wins over Wales.

Saturday's third Test in Dunedin is crucial for the pair, who can expect serious competition for the Rugby Championship roles from Williams and one-Test Chiefs midfielder Charlie Ngatai, who is recovering from concussion.

Hansen admits the midfield will be hotly contested as the selectors establish their strongest team in the wake of last year's World Cup defence.

"I don't think we've filled all the gaps yet. It's too early after two Tests," Hansen said.

"We've got to fit Sonny back in when he comes back ... and Charlie Ngatai, he's a pretty special player too.

"Midfield, we're still working away quietly at."

Williams, who played 10 of 12 Tests last year, may be need a little time to get his body attuned to 15-a-side demands before slotting back into the All Blacks after skipping Super Rugby this year.

Hansen said he would also look at the merits of other sevens players, suggesting Auckland brothers Rieko and Akira Ioane could be on his radar, along with experienced Test flanker Liam Messam.

Meanwhile, the midfield scenario this week is clouded further by facial and knee injuries suffered by Fekitoa in the 36-22 second Test win in Wellington on Saturday.

If Fekitoa is unfit, Seta Tamanivalu is likely to start his first Test, having made two bench appearances against the Welsh.

The backline holds most intrigue when Hansen names his team on Thursday.

Beauden Barrett is likely to get a rare start at five-eighth if Aaron Cruden is ruled out with a neck injury.

Prolific winger Julian Savea could be poised for a recall in place of Waisake Naholo after being dropped in Wellington for poor form.

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