By Greg Stutchbury
WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Regular All Blacks flyhalf Beauden Barrett has been moved to fullback with Richie Mo’unga getting only a third test start in the number 10 jersey for Saturday’s clash with South Africa in the Rugby Championship.
Mo’unga has arguably been the form New Zealand flyhalf in Super Rugby over the last two seasons but Steve Hansen has resolutely stuck with twice World Player of the Year Barrett in tests, citing the experience he has built up over seven seasons.
The fleet-footed Barrett twice started matches at fullback early in his international career but has played his last 36 tests with the number 10 on his back.
Mo’unga, 25, will have the chance to impress coach Hansen from the start of the match against New Zealand’s fiercest test rivals in a showdown that looks likely to determine the outcome of the truncated southern hemisphere championship.
It also gives Hansen the opportunity to continue the dual playmaker experiment he used last year when Damian McKenzie, who has been ruled out of the World Cup by a knee injury, played at fullback and Barrett at flyhalf.
While Hansen has downplayed the importance of the game as a prequel to the Rugby World Cup opener against the Springboks in Yokohama on Sept. 21, the fact he has named virtually his strongest pack shows he is still mindful of its significance.
He left several players from the Super Rugby champion Canterbury Crusaders in New Zealand last week to prepare for the clash at Wellington Regional Stadium.
The entire front row of Joe Moody, Codie Taylor and Owen Franks as well as lock Sam Whitelock and number eight Kieran Read have been brought back for Saturday’s match.
Lock Brodie Retallick is the only forward in the pack who also started last week’s 20-16 victory over Argentina in Buenos Aires.
Openside flanker Matt Todd has been preferred over last week’s captain Sam Cane and local favorite Ardie Savea, who played number eight in Buenos Aires.
Shannon Frizzel has been given his opportunity to try and cement the blindside flanker spot after Vaea Fifita failed to impose himself last week against the Pumas.
Fifita has been named on the bench, ostensibly to cover lock with no specialist named in the matchday 23, while loose forward Dalton Papalii is also among the replacements.
The match could also be make or break for inside center Sonny Bill Williams, who links up with Jack Goodhue in the midfield, after he recovered from a hamstring injury that kept him out of last week’s match in Argentina.
Williams, 33, has had an injury-plagued three years since he tore his Achilles tendon at the 2016 Rio Olympics and is in a tight battle for a place in the midfield with five players battling for what looks like being four spots.
“The key for us this week has been to continue building on the very good groundwork we’ve put in over the last couple of weeks,” Hansen said.
“Whilst we were a little rusty last week, we’re looking forward to seeing improvements in all areas of our game this week.
“It’s always an exciting occasion when we play the Springboks. We have a lot of respect for them and love playing them, as they bring many challenges to the contest.”
New Zealand: 15-Beauden Barrett, 14-Ben Smith, 13-Jack Goodhue, 12-Sonny Bill Williams, 11-Rieko Ioane, 10-Richie Mo’unga, 9-TJ Perenara, 8-Kieran Read (captain), 7-Matt Todd, 6-Shannon Frizell, 5-Sam Whitelock, 4-Brodie Retallick, 3-Owen Franks, 2-Codie Taylor, 1-Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16-Dane Coles, 17-Ofa Tuungafasi, 18-Angus Ta’avao, 19-Vaea Fifita, 20-Dalton Papalii, 21-Aaron Smith, 22-Anton Lienert-Brown, 23-George Bridge.
(Writing by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Nick Mulvenney)