New Zealand have thrown a wildcard into Saturday’s Rugby Championship decider against the Wallabies by selecting livewire winger Nehe Milner-Skudder for his Test debut.
Milner-Skudder does not fit the modern mould of big wingers, but the 24-year-old Hurricanes star set the Super Rugby competition alight with his big step and clever, elusive running after starting the season as a bench player.
He has overcome a rib injury but his selection for the big Sydney Test is a surprise as Charles Piutau has been omitted despite excelling on the wing in the last-start win over the Springboks.
Given a chance to show he can thrive at Test level, he has pedigree on his side – cousin Buff Milner (1969) and uncle George Skudder (1970) both played Tests.
Milner-Skudder will have a huge amount of experience around him when he runs out at ANZ Stadium.
There are 868 caps in the All Blacks starting 15, led by skipper Richie McCaw, who will be playing his 141st Test, equalling Irishman Brian O’Driscoll’s world record.
There are two other centurions in prop Tony Woodcock and five-eighth Dan Carter.
The inclusions of Milner-Skudder and Carter are among six personnel changes from the run-on side that began the 27-20 win over South Africa in Johannesburg.
Also coming in are lock Luke Romano, blindside flanker Jerome Kaino, inside centre Sonny Bill Williams and winger Julian Savea, while Ben Smith shifts from wing to fullback.
There are two changes on the bench, with prop Nepo Laulala and openside flanker Sam Cane added.
Coach Steve Hansen says the All Blacks are preparing for a “brutal” challenge against the Michael Cheika coached Wallabies.
“The Bledisloe Cup is an important trophy for New Zealand rugby and for this team, and Australia is one of our oldest opponents,” he said.
“We are well aware that they have made improvements and that their coach wants them to be more physical and more consistent.”
But Hansen said the All Blacks were also looking to lift their game from their performance against the Springboks at Ellis Park.
“This means we will need to bring physicality, intensity and accuracy to the occasion,” he said.
“I am picking this to be a brutal contest and one we are looking forward to. It will be about us implementing our game plan and skill sets for 80-plus minutes.”
Meanwhile, several players have been released to play in pre-season provincial matches: Jeremy Thrush (Wellington); Colin Slade, Matt Todd and Patrick Osborne (Canterbury); James Broadhurst (Taranaki).
NEW ZEALAND: Ben Smith, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Conrad Smith, Sonny Bill Williams, Julian Savea, Daniel Carter, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (capt), Jerome Kaino, Luke Romano, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Tony Woodcock. Res: Codie Taylor, Ben Franks, Nepo Laulala, Sam Whitelock, Sam Cane, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Malakai Fekitoa.