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NZ 23 jersey anyone's guess

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Has Ben Smith played his final Test? New Zealand's masters of versatility jostling for just one spot in the team

Two players who started for New Zealand against Namibia over the weekend could make the claim they’re the most versatile players in the backline.

Ben Smith, with 80 caps to his name, was restored to his favoured position of fullback and dotted down for two tries. Smith has started Tests for New Zealand at fullback, on the wing and in the midfield.

New Zealand’s youngest squad member, Jordie Barrett, was given the difficult task of playing his first professional match in the flyhalf position. He nailed his role, despite a few early goalkicking hiccups, and can now legitimately cover every position for the All Blacks from the 10 jersey outwards.

The two players have regularly been on the park together since Barrett made his international debut back in 2017, normally with Smith on the wing and Barrett at fullback. Sunday’s fixture against Namibia, however, may have been the last time we get to see these two combine on the field for the All Blacks.

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New Zealand have just one remaining pool game to play before entering the knockout stages of the World Cup.

Head coach Steve Hansen will likely want to perfect combinations and ensure the team is operating smoothly before entering sudden death, which means we will likely see an almost top-strength All Blacks side run out against Italy

If the last few games are anything to go by, that means reverting to the Richie Mo’unga/Beauden Barrett axis at 10 and 15 – which dislodges both Jordie Barrett and Ben Smith from their most recent positions.

Both are more than capable of covering wing, but George Bridge and Sevu Reece will likely hold onto their spots, leaving Smith and Barrett competing for a berth on the bench.

With both Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett starting, a back-up first five won’t be necessary, which will allow for the All Blacks to select two reserves to cover the midfield and outside backs.

It’s looking increasingly likely that Anton Lienert-Brown will start in the midfield after a man-of-the-match performance against Namibia. Any one of Jack Goodhue, Sonny Bill Williams or Ryan Crotty could partner with him.

The safe money is on a Crotty/Lienert-Brown combo with Williams being injected in the second half to torment tired defences.

That leaves just one remaining spot on the bench. Barrett, Smith and perhaps the improving Rieko Ioane are all vying for that one spot – and it’s anyone’s guess who the selectors will opt for to fill it.

Ioane was usurped on the left wing by Bridge and has likely run out of time to earn his spot back – but he does appeal as a damaging impact player.

Unfortunately for Ioane, the All Blacks really need some fullback cover on the bench because outside of Beauden Barrett, none of the starters are really adept at covering 15.

Bridge could move there if necessary, but he’s yet to get a run at the back in a Test match and a World Cup knockout match is not the time to give him that opportunity.

That effectively turns it into a two-horse race between Barrett and Smith for the 23 jersey.

Barrett is probably not as good a wing as Ioane nor as safe a fullback as Smith but he is the most versatile of the three. His ability to slot in at 10 is a big plus and Hansen thinks that his best position might well be in the midfield.

Smith, despite taking over from Israel Dagg as New Zealand’s first-choice fullback at the last World Cup, has played his best for the All Blacks on the wing. He may not be as dynamic as he once was (that tends to happen when you’re on your 34th cycle around the Sun) but he’s exactly the kind of guy you want on the field when trying to tie up your third World Cup in as many attempts.

Expect to see one of Ben Smith or Jordie Barrett named in the 23 jersey for New Zealand’s final pool game on Saturday – and then expect to see them hold down that number for the rest of the All Blacks’ time in the tournament.

Japan is known for many things… Chainsaw wielding pop-idols is probably not the most common one:

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Has Ben Smith played his final Test? New Zealand's masters of versatility jostling for just one spot in the team