Cruden return, Romano debut among six changes for All Blacks

Associated Press

6/20/2012 4:09:24 PM

WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- Flyhalf Aaron Cruden will start his first test since last year's Rugby World Cup final as a replacement for the injured Dan Carter in the All Blacks side for Saturday's third test against Ireland at Hamilton.

Carter picked up a hamstring strain in training this week, days after kicking the last-minute dropped goal that gave the All Blacks a 22-19 win in the second test and an insurmountable 2-0 lead in the three-match series.

Coach Steve Hansen on Thursday made six changes to his starting lineup for the test, naming captain Richie McCaw to start at No. 8 for the first time in his 106-test career.

Hansen replaced both wingers, naming Hosea Gear and Ben Smith in place of Julian Savea and Zac Guildford, and named lock Luke Romano to make his test debut.

Cruden started last year's World Cup final as New Zealand's third choice flyhalf after injuries to Carter and Colin Slade, but didn't finish the match because of a serious knee injury. His replacement, Stephen Donald, kicked the penalty that clinched New Zealand's 8-7 win over France.

The 22-year-old now steps back into an All Blacks team under pressure after last week's poor performance that just kept alive New Zealand's 107-year unbeaten run against Ireland in tests.

Carter has been critical to New Zealand's wins in the first two test matches but Cruden, in only his fourth test start, has the chance to show he can recover the poise and confidence he showed in the latter stages of last year's World Cup.

Hansen has moved to address the defensive weaknesses displayed by Savea and Guildford in the second test at Christchurch. Savea scored three tries on debut in the first test at Auckland but proved vulnerable under the high ball in Christchurch and couldn't be considered again for a starting role.

Gear, who was poised to leave New Zealand to play in Japan before winning an All Blacks recall after injuries to wingers Richard Kahui and Cory Jane, will play his ninth test and his first since August last year.

Romano will make his test debut in place of Brodie Retallick as part of a reshaped All Blacks pack. Ireland out-scrummaged the All Blacks at Christchurch and much of New Zealand's scrum weakness seemed to stem from the poor performance of its locks.

Retallick was industrious around the field but isn't yet a strong scrummager. Veteran Ali Williams, who took the field as a replacement, has left the All Blacks squad to have knee surgery, avoiding his almost inevitable rejection by the selectors.

McCaw moves from his regular position on the openside flank to No. 8 in a completely reshaped backrow. Youngster Sam Cane, seen as McCaw's eventual successor, will start on the openside while Liam Messam returns on the blindside flank in place of Adam Thomson.

Veteran Keven Mealamu returns at hooker after missing the first two tests with a calf injury.

The All Blacks have named a young and possibly brittle reserves bench with uncapped flyhalf Beauden Barrett as Cruden's understudy and one-test utility Tamati Ellison set to play his first international match since 2009.

Hansen said many of the young All Blacks had their first taste of the high-pressure nature of test rugby last weekend.

"It said a lot about the character of both teams and I believe this third test will see the same character and composure needed," he said. "The All Blacks by their own admission weren't happy with the way they performed, and in part this is a credit to the way the Irish played.

"They have laid down a challenge and the key will be how we respond."


New Zealand: Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Sonny Bill Williams, Hosea Gear, Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith, Richie McCaw (captain), Sam Cane, Liam Messam, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock.

Reserves: Keven Mealamu, Ben Franks, Brodie Retallick, Adam Thomson, Piri Weepu, Beauden Barrett, Tamati Ellison.