Wellington, New Zealand (AP) — Center Sonny Bill Williams has been recalled to the All Blacks team for Saturday’s Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup test against Australia after completing a four-match suspension following his sending off against the British and Irish Lions.
Williams became the first All Blacks in 50 years to be dismissed in a test match after a dangerous shoulder charge on Lions winger Anthony Watson during the second test at Wellington.
His four-match ban was thought likely to rule him out of Saturday’s test at Sydney, but New Zealand successfully appealed a World Rugby ruling on the matches that would count toward his suspension.
By taking into account a practice match played by the All Blacks last week, Williams became available and the selectors rushed him into a reorganized backline in Thursday’s team announcement.
Damian McKenzie has been named to start a test for the second time at fullback in the absence of Jordie Barrett, who is injured. Ben Smith, returning from a head injury, moves from fullback to the right wing and youngster Rieko Ioane will start on the left wing after the omission of veteran Julian Savea.
Liam Squire has been named on the blindside flank in place of Jerome Kaino who has been left out of the match-day 23 in a sign his 81-test career might be nearing its end.
Kaino was a key member of the All Blacks team which won the 2011 World Cup and left New Zealand soon after to play in Japan. He returned to win back his place in the 2015 World Cup-winning All Blacks team but his form has dipped in recent seasons.
He also has a checkered disciplinary record, receiving a yellow card for a high tackle during the third test against the Lions last month.
Kieran Read retains the captaincy but must also be under pressure after the drawn series against the Lions in which New Zealand lacked leadership. Read has struggled to step into the boots of former captain Richie McCaw who retired after the 2015 World Cup. His form has been moderate and he lacks McCaw’s strength and stature as captain.
The third member of the All Blacks backrow combination, open-side flanker Sam Cane, retains his place after a disappointing Lions series.
Codie Taylor will again start at hooker after Dane Coles suffered a new head injury, ending his comeback from a four-month injury break.
The selection for Saturday’s Rugby Championship opener suggests the problems that handicapped the All Blacks during the Lions series is continuing. Injuries and Williams’ suspension forced continual changes to the All Blacks backline through the three Lions tests and few of the stop-gap measures adopted by the selectors were successful.
The Lions also exploited tactical shortcomings, with All Blacks coaches unable to devise a plan to counter the tourists’ rush defence.
However, head coach Steve Hansen remained upbeat in announcing his team.
“There’s a real sense of excitement within the group and a desire to go out and perform well this weekend,” he said. “This test will give us a great opportunity to gauge where we are at when it comes to things we have been working on since the Lions tour.
“We’ve had a great build-up here in Sydney and there’s a single-minded focus. We’re playing for our most significant trophy outside of the Rugby World Cup and it means a lot to us as a team. As always, it’s going to be a massive occasion and we’re looking forward to Saturday.”
New Zealand: Damian McKenzie, Ben Smith, Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read (captain), Sam Cane, Liam Squire, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody. Replacements: Nathan Harris,
Wyatt Crockett, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Luke Romano, Ardie Savea, T.J. Perenara, Lima Sopoaga, Anton Lienert-Brown.