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All Blacks axe stars for Bledisloe decider

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14th August, 2019
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The All Blacks have dumped star wingers Ben Smith and Rieko Ioane, along with centurion prop Owen Franks in a sensational move ahead of the Bledisloe Cup decider in Auckland.

In a potential changing of the guard five weeks out from the Rugby World Cup, coach Steve Hansen has introduced young flyers Sevu Reece and George Bridge to the wing for Saturday’s winner-takes-all Test.

Nepo Laulala claims Franks’ tighthead berth in one of five starting changes from the team humbled 47-26 by the Wallabies in Perth.

Two changes were forced.

Veteran Sonny Bill Williams returns to the midfield following injury to Jack Goodhue, pushing Anton Lienert-Brown to outside centre, while fourth-choice lock Patrick Tuipulotu replaces the suspended Scott Barrett.

The axing from the 23 of Smith and Franks could potentially end the career of two great All Blacks, with both having signed European club contracts beyond the World Cup.

Smith, a 79-Test veteran who last week became the first 33-year-old to play an All Blacks Test on the wing, may struggle for a seat to Japan in a hotly-contested position.

Franks is the seventh most capped All Black with 108 Tests and one of their greatest scrummagers but the two-time World Cup winner lacks the mobility that Hansen now demands of his props.

Ioane’s form is a pale shadow of 2017-18, resulting in the exclusion of a player who has scored 23 tries in 26 Tests.

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It leaves New Zealand with their least-experienced wing combination since Doug Howlett and Bruce Reihana started a Test against France in Marseilles 19 years ago.

Fiji-born Reece, 22, was the brightest light in Super Rugby this year, thrilling with his electric running on the way to a competition-high 15 tries in his rookie season for the champion Crusaders. His first and only Test was against Argentina last month.

Crusaders teammate Bridge’s three caps have all come off the bench, including two tries on debut against Japan last year.

“We’ve got two young, exciting wingers that we need to see play,” Hansen said.

“While Rico and Bender (Smith) are world-class players, we think these boys are capable of being world class players too.

“They’re very confident men, they believe in themselves. They’ve come off a really good season with the Crusaders in good form.”

Hansen has persisted with two other key out-of-position changes introduced this year, again naming Beauden Barrett at fullback and Ardie Savea on the blindside flank.

He has urged more commitment if they’re to deny Australia the Cup for a 17th straight year.

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“We’ve got to put them under pressure and take away the confidence they’ve got from playing the way they did last week,” Hansen said.

“There’s a lot of pride in the team. We’ve spoken a lot about the Bledisloe being the second most important trophy and now we get the opportunity to show that.”

All Blacks team for Bledisloe 2
1. Joe Moody, 2. Dane Coles, 3. Nepo Laulala, 4. Patrick Tuipulotu, 5. Samuel Whitelock, 6. Ardie Savea, 7. Sam Cane, 8. Kieran Read – captain, 9. Aaron Smith, 10. Richie Mo’unga, 11. George Bridge, 12. Sonny Bill Williams, 13. Anton Lienert-Brown, 14. Sevu Reece, 15. Beauden Barrett. Reserves: 16. Codie Taylor, 17. Ofa Tuungafasi, 18. Angus Ta’avao, 19. Jackson Hemopo, 20. Matt Todd, 21. TJ Perenara, 22. Ngani Laumape, 23. Jordie Barrett