McKenzie, Squire in for Bledisloe opener

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has sprung a major surprise ahead of the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship opener against Australia in Sydney, opting for young gun Damian McKenzie at fullback.

The 22-year-old livewire, who enjoyed a stellar Super Rugby campaign with the Chiefs, is the main beneficiary of a backline reshuffle.

He will play in the black No.15 jumper for just the second time, while incumbent fullback Ben Smith moves onto the right edge.

Rieko Ioane, who missed July’s third British and Irish Lions Test through illness, has been named ahead of Waisake Naholo and Israel Dagg on the other wing.

Ryan Crotty and the returning Sonny Bill Williams are in midfield.

“We just think that for this game in particular, Damian has been playing really well and it gives us a better-balanced back three, aerially – and Rieko as we know is really strong too,” Hansen said.

“Our midfield combination is a one-two-three hit. We think the combination of Sonny and Crotty is the best one, they complement each other well.”

With star hooker Dane Coles ruled out earlier this week, the All Blacks forward line takes on a similar complexion to that seen against the Lions, with four of the tight five coming from the Crusaders.

However, in another surprise, bruising Highlanders loose forward Liam Squire has earned the nod at blindside ahead of 81-Test veteran Jerome Kaino.

The two-time Rugby World Cup winner has been left out altogether.

With several of his All Blacks regulars leaving Kiwi shores post-Lions, Hansen has also been forced to make changes to his bench.

Blues prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi will replace ex-teammate Charlie Faumuina as the All Blacks’ back-up tighthead, while Lima Sopoaga has been rewarded for his patience, named as reserve first-five behind Beauden Barrett.

Hansen said his side were determined to hang onto the Bledisloe, having won the trans-Tasman trophy 14 years on the bounce.

“It’s the biggest trophy we play for outside of the World Cup and it means a lot to the group – it’s part of who are we, and our legacy is about honouring, respecting and enhancing the jersey,” Hansen said.

“We’ve held this trophy for a while, and no one wants to be part of giving it up.”

NEW ZEALAND: Damian McKenzie, Ben Smith, Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read (c), Sam Cane, Liam Squire, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody. RESERVES: Nathan Harris, Wyatt Crockett, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Luke Romano, Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara, Lima Sopoaga, Anton Lienert-Brown.

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