All Blacks axe stars for Bledisloe decider
The Bledisloe Cup decider at Eden Park has been labelled the ultimate World Cup trial for the All Blacks by coach Steve Hansen in explaining his axing of three star players.
Wingers Ben Smith and Rieko Ioane, along with centurion prop Owen Franks, were dumped from New Zealand's 23 in a dramatic overhaul for Saturday's return Test at Eden Park.
Young flyers Sevu Reece and George Bridge are introduced on the wing with just four caps between them, while prop Nepo Laulala is also placed under the blowtorch in his 11th Test start.
Hansen wouldn't have it any other way as the world champions seek a response to last week's 47-26 drubbing in Perth.
"I'm loving it. This is the best challenge we can get prior to going to a World Cup," Hansen said.
"Obviously we'd like to see Ben, Owen and Rieko playing better but we've made decisions because we've got to find out more about these other people in big pressure cooker situations. You don't get much bigger than this one.
"We need to find out if these three players can step up to the plate."
Of five starting changes, the other two were forced.
Veteran Sonny Bill Williams returns to the midfield following injury to Jack Goodhue, pushing Anton Lienert-Brown to outside centre, while fourth-choice lock Patrick Tuipulotu replaces the suspended Scott Barrett.
Hansen has been accused of panicking by introducing New Zealand's least experienced wing combination in nearly 20 years while dispensing with Smith and Ioane, at different times regarded as the world's premier outside backs.
He contended there was only a small risk given the form of Reece and Bridge for the Super Rugby champion Crusaders.
He also hosed down suggestions the World Cup selection chances of Smith and Ioane have taken a hit.
"What happens if we get to the World Cup and Ben Smith blows a tyre or Rieko blows a hamstring? And we've got to put some young guy in there who's never faced pressure like this before?
"It's ideal. This is the best game we could have asked for."
Fiji-born Reece, 22, was the brightest light in Super Rugby this year, thrilling with his electric running on the way to a competition-high 15 tries in his rookie season. His first and only Test was against Argentina last month.
Crusaders teammate Bridge's three caps have all come off the bench.
Hansen has persisted with two key out-of-position selections introduced this year, retaining Beauden Barrett at fullback and Ardie Savea on the blindside flank.
Hansen said attitude, not selection, will be the key to reversing the heftiest loss in New Zealand's proud history.
"We're going to get asked some questions about ourselves. We didn't front up last week and we have to front up this week or (the Cup) will be going back to Australia."
ALL BLACKS: Beauden Barrett, Sevu Reece, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sonny Bill Williams, George Bridge, Richie Mo'unga, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read (capt), Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Sam Whitelock, Patrick Tuipulotu, Nepo Laulala, Dane Coles, Joe Moody. Res: Codie Taylor, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Angus Ta'avao, Jackson Hemopo, Matt Todd, TJ Perenara, Ngani Laumape, Jordie Barrett.