Defending champion New Zealand has stuck with a dual playmaker model, selecting Richie Mo’unga at flyhalf and Beauden Barrett at fullback for their Rugby World Cup opener against South Africa on Saturday.
Barrett’s selection and the retention of young wingers Sevu Reece and George Bridge means there is no place in the starting lineup for backline veteran Ben Smith who was included on the bench alongside center Sonny Bill Williams.
Ryan Crotty will return from injury at inside center in a midfield partnership with Anton-Lienert Brown.
Scott Barrett returns from suspension and will combine with Sam Whitelock in the second row, pushing Patrick Tuipulotu to the bench. Dane Coles will start at hooker ahead of Codie Taylor.
Captain Kieran Read, Ardie Savea and Sam Cane wil again team in the back row, with Savea named on the blindside.
The midfield and back three selections may have been most problematic for head coach Steven Hansen and his fellow selectors. They have shown immense faith in youngsters Reece and Bridge by leaving Ben Smith among the reserves.
“Any combination of players in our squad could have justified their selection,” Hansen said. “But in the end we believe the 23 we have selected is the right group for this opposition.
“In today’s rugby environment you need to have the mindset that it’s not just about who starts, it’s also about what the players coming off the bench can provide. As an example, we have a great one-two punch with Dane and Codie at hooker and Aaron (Smith) and T.J. (Perenara) at halfback.”
The match between New Zealand and South Africa will likely decide the winner of their pool. The top-placed team then has a good chance of avoiding a quarterfinal against No. 1-ranked Ireland.
“The challenge of playing one of our oldest and most respected foes in the opening test has us excited and energized by what lies ahead,” Hansen said. “Each time we play South Africa it’s a tight battle and a real arm wrestle.
“To perform at our very best we’ll have to play with real clarity, intent, energy and clear heads. Both teams will have their moments and it’ll be our job to ensure we limit theirs and take full opportunity of ours.”
New Zealand, bidding for a third consecutive World Cup title, was held to a 16-16 draw in late July by Rugby Championship winner South Africa.
New Zealand lineup
Beauden Barrett, Sevu Reece, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ryan Crotty, George Bridge, Richie Mo’unga, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read (captain), Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock, Nepo Laulala, Dane Coles, Joe Moody. Reserves: Codie Taylor, Ofa Tuungafasi, Angus Ta’avao, Patrick Tuipulotu, Shannon Frizell, T.J. Perenara, Sonny Bill Williams, Ben Smith.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5