Bledisloe Cup: Australia v New Zealand, Sydney, August 17
All Blacks lose Liam Messam
August 15, 2013
Steven Luatua has played just 10 minutes in an All Blacks jumper © Getty Images
New Zealand have been dealt another major injury blow ahead of the Rugby Championship-opening Bledisloe Cup Test against Australia at ANZ Stadium in Sydney on Saturday, with Chiefs Super Rugby final winner Liam Messam ruled out with a hamstring strain.
Messam, Man of the Match in the Super Rugby final against the Brumbies, sustained the injury during training in Wellington on Thursday. He has been replaced in the starting team by Steven Luatua, the Blues breakaway called up to make his run-on debut. Luatua has played just 10 minutes of Test rugby, as a second-half replacement for Victor Vito in the third Test against France in New Plymouth seven weeks ago.
Messam's absence is a major blow for the All Blacks after Dan Carter was ruled out earlier in the week but there is a return for Richie McCaw nearly nine months after trudging off Twickenham in defeat to commence his sabbatical.
McCaw, 32, will lead a hardened New Zealand side in the opening Bledisloe Cup clash that will expose whether he is short of fitness after returning to training only two months ago. A proven performer in the past with little rugby under his belt, McCaw faces his biggest cobweb-brushing exercise physically and mentally, having reclaimed the captaincy from Kieran Read after playing just one 80-minute club game, making two late Super Rugby bench appearances for the Crusaders, and enjoying 40 minutes against Canterbury in an All Blacks squad hit-out last Friday.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has never doubted McCaw's readiness, saying the veteran has added value already this week with a critique of the recent three-Test series whitewash of France. "He's been sitting back watching through the June series and he's got his thoughts on that and how we can improve our game. He's pretty keen. The pleasing thing is the flow-on from Reado, because he's continuing to lead really well as well."
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McCaw, who stored the boots after his 116th Test, the heavy loss to England in London on December 1, 2012, to pursue other interests at home and overseas, will be the second-oldest player to wear the All Blacks' No.7 jumper in a Test, behind Bob Stuart, 33; Stuart played against France in 1954.
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The front-row has also done the hard yards, with Tony Woodcock to start his 99th Test and Andrew Hore to win his 77th cap; lively Crusaders trio of prop Owen Franks and locks Sam Whitelock and Luke Romano round out the tight five.
Manawatu team-mates Aaron Smith and Aaron Cruden have been named in the halves, and Ma'a Nonu will start his 80th Test, at inside centre, having been cleared of an ankle injury. Conrad Smith, meanwhile, wins his 70th cap playing inside the back three of fullback Israel Dagg and wingers Julian Savea and Ben Smith.
Cruden replaces the injured Carter in one of six starting changes from the slightly experimental side that defeated France 24-9 in the third Test at New Plymouth on June 22.
There are just three differences from what was regarded as the first choice All Blacks XV that crushed the French 30-0 at Christchurch a week earlier. They see McCaw, Woodcock and Hore replace Sam Cane, the injured Wyatt Crockett and Dane Coles respectively. Coles was released to play ITM Cup rugby this week, meaning Test centurion Keven Mealamu is the reserve hooker.
Uncapped Crusaders back Ryan Crotty, 24, is the reserve outside back cover, having been called into the wider training squad on Sunday to replace the injured Francis Saili. He was promoted onto the Test bench ahead of fullback specialist Charles Piutau due to his midfield prowess, with Carter's injury robbing New Zealand of inside centre injury coverage.
All Blacks: Israel Dagg; Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea; Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (captain), Steven Luatua; Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano; Owen Franks, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: Keven Mealamu, Ben Franks, Charlie Faumuina, Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Beauden Barrett, Ryan Crotty.