Ma’a Nonu replaces Sonny Bill Williams in the midfield and Nehe Milner-Skudder wins the contested wing berth in a powerful All Blacks side to face France in Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final.
Captain Richie McCaw returns, having recovered from the leg injury that kept him out of the All Blacks’ final pool game against Tonga.
He is one of four world players of the year, along with Kieran Read, Dan Carter and Brodie Retallick, in a side which boasts an impressive 1295 Test caps in total.
“The big boys have to step up to the plate and the team that does this the best will move through to the next round. It’s as simple as that,” coach Steve Hansen said on Thursday when naming the side.
The selection of Nonu ahead of Williams was always going to be a close call, as was choosing between Milner-Skudder and Waisake Naholo.
Wyatt Crockett will start at loosehead prop after Tony Woodcock’s campaign was ended by a serious hamstring strain in the match against Tonga.
Joe Moody, rushed from New Zealand to replace Woodcock, goes straight onto the bench as a specialist loosehead.
The defending champions have gone through pool play undefeated but without looking overly convincing in a relatively light group.
However, Hansen has insisted their match strategies were designed to rehearse for the knockout stages rather than post big scores, an attitude that cost them dearly in 2007.
After waltzing through pool games then, the All Blacks were unprepared for a quarter-final against France and were knocked out of the tournament 20-18.
Saturday’s encounter is a rematch. The All Blacks lost to France in a World Cup quarter-final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff in 2007 and Hansen wants no repeat.
“We’re exactly where we want to be, playing a quarter-final at Millennium Stadium. It’s finals footy and we’re hugely excited by that,” Hansen said.
“We’re a team that enjoys a challenge, we’ve had a great week’s preparation and it’s now about putting it out on the park.”
Despite the memory of 2007, Hansen said this team was about “making its own history” in what he predicted would be an intense match.
“The French will be very physical and both teams have plenty to play for.”
Ben Smith; Nehe Milner-Skudder, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Julian Savea; Dan Carter, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (capt), Jerome Kaino; Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick; Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Wyatt Crockett. Res: Keven Mealamu, Joe Moody, Charlie Faumuina, Victor Vito, Sam Cane, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Beauden Barrett, Sonny Bill Williams