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Ben Smith swan song incoming

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Expect a Ben Smith swansong on Friday with All Blacks primed to make changes

The bronze play-off poses an interesting question for the two competing sides’ respective coaches.

Do you opt for your strongest team, so as to not to leave the World Cup on a two-match streak of losses, or do you give you under-utilised charges the opportunity to get some game time in a somewhat meaningless match?

Steve Hansen as good as confirmed on Sunday that we shouldn’t expect to see the same team trotted out that waged war against South Africa, Ireland and England throughout the World Cup.

“We haven’t even sat down and talked to the players about who’s playing yet,” Hansen said.

“We’ve always said we’re a team of 31 and we’ve been working hard for each other, so if I was leaning any way as a journalist writing a story, I’d probably lean the way that there’ll be a few extra people, new guys, coming in.”

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That being said, don’t expect to see a weak side rolled out by the All Blacks.

It’s been over 60 years since Wales last recorded a win against New Zealand, back in 1953. That marked Wales’ second victory over the Men in Blacks, with their first win coming in 1905.

Wales are due for a win and will want to send Warren Gatland out with a performance to be proud of. The New Zealand selectors will be on their toes.

“We see [the 3rd/4th play-off] as a chance in some ways to redeem ourselves,” said All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster. “We have a chance to show we’re a better team than what we showed last week.

“For us as a group, that’s really important. So, we’re pleased we have the game. It’s not easy getting knocked out, going home and then spending all summer thinking ‘what if?'”

Steve Hansen also affirmed that the All Blacks won’t be giving Wales’ any freebies.

“It will be the last week this team is together and we have an opportunity to do it well. I know in talking to the boys that we’ll get a response,” the head coach said.

What, then, should we expect from New Zealand’s Wednesday team announcement?

At the very least, we should see a number of departing players get one last match in the black jersey.

Ben Smith, Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams, Kieran Read and Matt Todd will all take up contracts elsewhere in 2020. Read and Williams have had plenty of game time at the 2019 World Cup but Smith and Crotty have both spent more time in the stands that on the pitch.

Smith, in particular, has been a stalwart for this New Zealand side and deserves an excellent send-off. The Beauden Barrett/Richie Mo’unga combination has shone at times this season but a return to fullback for Smith would be a fair way to say goodbye to one of Otago’s favourite sons.

Elsewhere in the backline, Rieko Ioane will likely be reinstated on the left-wing after losing his place this year to George Bridge. Brad Weber is also due for some minutes, having only featured against minnows Canada and Namibia.

In the loose forwards, it sounds like Ardie Savea will have to take a backseat this week due to a “dodgy knee”. His absence opens the door for Sam Cane to take back his spot on the openside flank after making an impact off the bench against England.

The Scott Barrett blindside experiment didn’t exactly go to plan against Wales, which means Shannon Frizell, the only specialist blindside flanker in the squad, might come in at 6.

In the tight five, Atu Moli and Liam Coltman have seen precious little game time and deserve another run from the bench. Sam Whitelock has looked sluggish in recent times and is probably in need of a long off-season, which may force Hansen’s hand.

All-in-all, there should be a number of changes for the All Blacks – but none that will make New Zealand any less of a fearsome challenge for Wales.

The fact that Hansen will also be coaching in his final international game should motivate his charges to farewell him with a bounce-back performance after a middling effort against England.

Possible New Zealand team: Ben Smith, Jordie Barrett, Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read (c), Sam Cane, Shannon Frizell, Scott Barrett, Brodie Retallick, Nepo Laulala, Dane Coles, Joe Moody. Reserves: Liam Coltman, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Atu Moli, Patrick Tuipulotu, Matt Todd, Brad Weber, Anton Lienert-Brown, George Bridge.

There’s always seemed to be a rocky relationship between Steve Hansen and Wales coach Warren Gatland – is there any truth to it?:

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Expect a Ben Smith swansong on Friday with All Blacks primed to make changes