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All Blacks midfield auditions almost over

NZ NewswireNZ Newswire 8/06/2016

The All Blacks' green midfield candidates are being put through the wringer ahead of the series against Wales to identify the replacements for departed greats Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith.

Highlanders centre Malakai Fekitoa and Crusaders second five-eighth Ryan Crotty have the inside running to start the first Test in Auckland on Saturday because of their moderate Test experience but assistant coach Ian Foster insists the midfield selection has been a contestable process.

It means the door hasn't been closed on uncapped Chiefs centre Seta Tamanivalu, nor one-Test powerhouse Blues utility George Moala, who was called in as cover for the injured Charlie Ngatai (concussion).

Foster says the foursome have been rotated at training. The most interesting observations were made when intensity was added to some of the sessions this week.

"Then you start to see a few little cracks appear when they're faced with a situation they haven't faced before - at a bit of speed and tempo. But that's good learning," Foster said.

"Whichever two go out there, they'll be prepared to play."

Foster says it has been important not to overload the players with information, particularly those fresh to Test rugby.

It suggests a relatively straightforward game plan for the first Test of the year, with Foster hopeful they can avoid the rusty opening performances of recent seasons.

"This week is about fine-tuning and putting in a bit more intensity and accuracy. The temptation is to try to do too much so we're holding back on that."

While Fekitoa and Crotty have played 18 Tests between them, the likely Welsh midfield of Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts is an accomplished one, tallying nearly 140 caps, including three each for the British and Irish Lions.

Davies played down the gap in experience, believing it's hard for any midfield to dominate a Test without other parts of their game clicking.

"If you look at midfield caps, we do win that battle, but it is going to be a squad effort and we have got to work hard together. It's going to be a tough task for us but we are very confident."

Davies, 28, plays for French club Clermont, who are top qualifiers for this month's Top-14 play-offs. Injury robbed him of a chance to line up against Nonu and Smith in domestic competition this season.

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