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Pass-master Smith gets Test nod over TJ

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 14/06/2017 Daniel Gilhooly

Aaron Smith's bullet pass has seen off TJ Perenara in the most contentious call from All Blacks coach Steve Hansen in naming his first team of the year.

Smith will start at halfback in the team to face Samoa on Friday, led for the first time by his Highlanders team-mate Ben Smith.

Fullback Ben Smith becomes the 68th All Blacks Test skipper, with regular captain Kieran Read sidelined by a thumb injury which is expected to heal before next week's first Test against the British and Irish Lions.

The first New Zealand fullback captain since 2009, 60-Test veteran Ben Smith won the nod over flanker Sam Cane, who has led his country twice.

Hansen said Perenara was unfortunate to drop to the reserves bench, having snared the starting halfback berth from an out-of-sorts Smith on the November tour to Europe.

Smith, with well-documented off-field struggles behind him, has returned to close to his best form in Super Rugby, Hansen said.

"We think that Nugget (Smith) is the best passing halfback in the world. He's probably a little bit ahead of TJ with the box-kicking as well," Hansen said.

"That's what got him the start... his passing's as good as it's ever been."

Read's absence has handed Ardie Savea the start at No.8, a position he has dabbled in this year for the Hurricanes.

Completing the loose forward trio is veteran blindside flanker Jerome Kaino, who hasn't played since injuring a knee seven weeks ago.

The Test will be a special one for the Barrett brothers, after all three were included in the 23, including the uncapped Jordie Barrett.

He and lock Scott Barrett are on the bench while starting first five-eighth Beauden Barrett will play his 50th Test.

Assuming the bench is cleared, it will be the first ever Test involving three All Blacks family members.

A bench debut looms for Hurricanes forward Vaea Fifita, who steps up in the absence of Read and flanker Liam Squire (thumb).

Second five-eighth Sonny Bill Williams will play his first Test since the 2015 Rugby World Cup final, with Hansen noting he links with rising centre Anton Lienert-Brown for the first time.

"A bit of fluidity, a bit of connection, from them would be good," he said.

"That'll depend on the ball we're given, I suppose."

Hansen says there is genuine pressure being applied on experienced wingers Julian Savea and Israel Dagg, with Blues youngster Rieko Ioane and Highlanders flyer Waisake Naholo having both impressed of late.

The starting tight five features four of the Crusaders pack who struggled for authority in the 12-3 loss to the Lions on Saturday.

Codie Taylor starts at hooker, with first-choice Dane Coles still recovering from concussion symptoms.

Hansen remains uncertain about Coles' possible return but was encouraged the world class rake had trained at greater intensity this week before returning home on Wednesday.

All Blacks:

Ben Smith, Israel Dagg, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sonny Bill Williams, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Ardie Savea, Sam Cane, Jerome Kaino, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody. Reserves: Nathan Harris, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Scott Barrett, Vaea Fifita, TJ Perenara, Lima Sopoaga, Jordie Barrett.

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