The All Blacks’ midfield concerns have deepened with the loss of centre George Moala for Saturday night’s Bledisloe Cup clash with the Wallabies in Sydney.
Impressive against Wales earlier this year, Moala has been ruled out of the Rugby Championship opener at ANZ Stadium after suffering a medial ligament tear at training on Monday.
It’s another headache for All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, already coming to grips with losing Sonny Bill Williams for the entire campaign due to his achilles injury at the Rio Olympics sevens last week.
After decades of stability, the centres were already shaping as a potential area of rare vulnerability for the top-ranked All Blacks following the retirements of veteran pair Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith after last year’s successful World Cup defence.
Nonu, Smith and Williams boast some 230 Tests of experience and have each won two World Cups.
Since the days of Bruce Robertson, Joe Stanley, Frank Bunce and Tana Umaga through to Smith and Nonu, the All Blacks have always prospered with long-serving centres.
Now Hansen is seemingly certain to use the relatively inexperienced international duo of Ryan Crotty and Malakai Fekitoa against Australia, with young rookie Anton Lienert-Brown unlikely to start in the Bledisloe Cup cauldron after being called up as Williams’ squad replacement.
All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster conceded the Moala setback was “disappointing”.
“It’s certainly different, isn’t it,” Foster said.
“People are sort of used to the Nonu-Smith (combination). Chuck Sonny Bill in there as well.
“I wouldn’t call it vulnerable but I’d certainly say we are building combinations.”
While New Zealand’s centre stocks are suddenly depleted, Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has the luxury of being able to call upon his World Cup pairing of Matt Giteau and Tevita Kuridrani, or consider any number of other options.
Israel Folau, Samu Kerevi, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Rob Horne and Matt Toomua are other competent centres in the Wallabies squad fighting for a starting spot.
“I don’t know whether that’s an area they’re going to target or not,” Foster said.
“There’s no hiding the fact that we’ve got players that are less experienced than guys who have been there in the past.
“But if look at the guys we’ve got there, Ryan’s got a number of Tests under his belt and Malakai’s the same.
“Obliviously losing George means we’re short of that option but we’ve got guys who have played a bit of Test-match rugby and have played over here as well.
“So whichever way we go, it’s exciting for us.
“We know it’s new, but it’s something we saw in June. We made good progress in the midfield and now it’s going to be a next step up.”