All Blacks coach Steve Hansen says rolling the selection dice ahead of the third Test against Wales is risky but vital if they are to build depth for the Rugby Championship.
Two months out from the opening Test against Australia in Sydney, Hansen will take particular interest in how several fringe members of his squad perform in Dunedin on Saturday.
Leading a fairly hard-fought series 2-0, Hansen has made five starting changes and a further six to his bench.
Elliot Dixon wins his first cap in the starting side in place of Jerome Kaino while another Highlanders loose forward, Liam Squire, should make his debut off the bench after replacing in-form impact player Ardie Savea. Uncapped prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi is also among the reserves.
Tu’ungafasi’s selection comes after tighthead Charlie Faumuina was promoted to start in place of Owen Franks.
“We’ve won the series, fine, but we’re still expecting a really brutal Test match,” Hansen said.
“So are the rewards worthy of making the changes? Of course they are because we trust the players that are coming in and we need to find out, are they going to be good enough going forward?
“The proof is always in the eating of a good pudding.”
Two changes to the starting backline are forced by injury.
Beauden Barrett, who has starred off the bench in the first two Tests, is at five-eighth in place of Aaron Cruden (neck).
A knee injury to centre Malakai Fekitoa hands a second Test start to George Moala, who scored the All Blacks’ lone try in his debut on the wing in the tight win over Samoa in Apia last year.
Hansen has restored Julian Savea in place of Waisake Naholo, having dropped the prolific left winger last week in a bid to get him out of a mental rut.
The flying Naholo has been earmarked as bench injury cover at centre, a position he played at schoolboy level.
“When we talked to Waisake about it, he was more than comfortable. We need to find out about some of these guys.”
Hansen said winger Ben Smith, who has played nearly 20 Tests at centre, wasn’t considered as a backup for the role, leaving him to concentrate on his outside back and vice-captain duties.
Also, Hansen said he had seen enough of omitted centre Seta Tamanivalu off the bench in the first two Tests.
Five bench players are poised to play their first part in the series.
Halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow is back from a hand injury while five-eighth Lima Sopoaga and hooker Codie Taylor join Tu’ungafasi and Squire.
If Hansen uses all his bench, only three squad members won’t have had any game time against the Welsh – utility back Damian McKenzie, lock Tom Franklin and injured back Charlie Ngatai.
All Blacks: Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, George Moala, Ryan Crotty, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read (capt), Sam Cane, Elliot Dixon, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Charlie Faumuina, Dane Coles, Joe Moody. Reserves: Codie Taylor, Wyatt Crockett, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Luke Romano, Liam Squire, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Lima Sopoaga, Waisake Naholo.