WELLINGTON – New Zealand’s preparations for the Rugby World Cup appear in disarray after coach Steve Hansen was forced to drop two of his most experienced players in response to the record Bledisloe Cup loss to Australia.
Hansen has axed prop Owen Franks, a veteran of 108 tests and two World Cup victories, and 79-test winger Ben Smith in drastic changes to his lineup for the return test at Auckland on Saturday.
New Zealand has held the Bledisloe Cup for 17 years but its grip on the trophy was shaken by Australia’s 47-26 win last weekend in the first test of the two-test series in Perth. The All Blacks must extend their 33-year, 18-test winning streak over Australia at Auckland’s Eden Park to retain the trophy.
Hansen is known to be fiercely loyal to senior players, giving them the chance to play themselves back to form whenever their performances have been questioned.
His move to drop two of his most senior and trusted lieutenants, which may signal the impending end of their test careers, suggests the All Blacks have been forced to take desperate measures to arrest a form slump ahead of the World Cup.
The loss to Australia followed a narrow win over Argentina and a draw with South Africa in the Rugby Championship. Those performances continued a run of poor form which has dogged the All Blacks for most of the past three years.
Franks, who has been the reliable anchor of the All Blacks scrum for almost a decade, pays the price for the weakness of the scrum against Australia and in other recent matches.
Smith has looked hopelessly out of form after being forced to move from fullback to the right wing to accommodate Hansen’s decision to play flyhalf Beauden Barrett at fullback and Richie Mo’unga at flyhalf in a two playmaker arrangement.
Left winger Rieko Ioane, recently the world’s breakout player of the year, has also been dropped after a complete loss of form.
Crusaders wingers Sevu Reece and George Bridge have been elevated to the starting lineup in place of Smith and Ioane. Reece will play only his second test and Bridge his fourth.
Nepo Laulala will start at tighthead prop in place of Franks who, along with Smith, has been dropped entirely from the match 23.
Patrick Tuipulotu will start at lock in place of Scott Barrett, who was suspended for three matches after being sent off in the first Bledisloe test for a shoulder charge on Wallabies captain Michael Hooper.
Sonny Bill Williams returns at inside center in a constantly changing midfield. He will combine with Anton Lienert-Borwn in the absence of Jack Goodhue, who has a hamstring strain.
Hansen has retained the back row of captain Kieran Read, Ardie Savea and Sam Cane despite its failure last weekend.
“We have worked hard this week on our game and all that comes with it,” Hansen said. “We’ve had a great preparation and are really excited and looking forward to a massive, must-win match for the Bledisloe Cup.
“We know that Australia will be determined and confident after their win in Perth which makes the challenge even more exciting.”
But the changes made by Hansen and his fellow selectors suggest the All Blacks are groping in the dark for solutions to serious systemic problems as the World Cup approaches.