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'We'll have to watch him closely': Michael Cheika pinpoints All Blacks' biggest threat

By Patrick McKendry, NZ Herald

Ardie Savea’s form meant he couldn’t be left out of the All Blacks starting line-up to play Australia in Bledisloe I. That was acknowledged by both Steve Hansen and Michael Cheika today, with the Wallabies coach describing the flanker as a threat who will have to be watched closely.

Cheika also called Savea a “hybrid”-type player and one not constrained by orthodoxy. The Wallabies often run with two openside flankers and a No 8 but the All Blacks have rarely gone down this path; preferring instead a taller more traditional blindside rather than a shorter but explosive and pacey player such as Savea.

That they have selected him in the No 6 jersey is partly due to Liam Squire’s unavailability but in the end the choice must have been simple; he just couldn’t be left out and his combination with Sam Cane and Kieran Read will be eagerly anticipated by most rugby fans everywhere.

“Ardie is a player who is a sort of a hybrid,” Cheika said. “He can play that hard-running, aggressive game – he’s an openside as well. I had the opportunity to coach him for a small time at the Baabaas … you get to see the player for what he is and he’s a bit of a hybrid between a No 8, a six and a seven. Often that can hurt players but he’s a good enough player to be able to push through that and continually be selected for New Zealand.

“We’ve always had that; we’ve played [David] Pocock (still injured) and [Michael] Hooper together … I don’t think the profile of any player is the essential element, it’s more the quality of the player and he’s obviously got good quality and we’ll have to watch him closely.”

Hansen said: “We’re at that part of the year where we need to start putting our combinations that we want to see on a regular basis out there,” adding that Savea’s role wouldn’t differ hugely. His greatest strength as a No 8 or openside is his ability to put his teams on the front foot and he will be expected to do the same against the Wallabies.

Ardie Savea. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

As to where he would pack down in the scrum or the specifics of his role, Hansen added: “We don’t need to tell Australia everything do we? But probably not [pack down as a traditional blindside] – they’re only numbers.”

Savea added: “I’ve just got six on my back, I guess. Everything will stay the same; I’ll just go out there and nail my role within the team.

“Having guys like Sammy and Reado around makes it easier as well.”

If the All Blacks have rolled the dice a little with Savea in a selection which was predicted by most observers, so they have kept faith in the dual playmakers of Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett.

Dane Coles returns to hooker and Aaron Smith to halfback, with Anton Lienert-Brown at second-five in the absence of Sonny Bill Williams. With Matt Todd on the bench as loose forward cover, it is a line-up based around speed and Hansen’s men are likely to challenge the Wallabies to play at an up-tempo pace the home side may find uncomfortable.

One surprise, however, is the selection in the Wallabies No 13 jersey of one James O’Connor, a player who last started a test six years ago.

“No, that was a bit of a surprise,” Hansen said. “It’s going to be interesting because he’s a jack-in-the-box and will need to be looked after.”

Cheika, who has mixed things up further by naming Nic White at halfback and Christian Lealiifano at first-five, said: “I think James will present something a little bit different that we haven’t seen and definitely our opponents haven’t seen either. He seems to have handled it pretty well in training.

“He’s been very solid in his defensive work at training … obviously this is test footy but I have a lot of faith in James.”

In other news:

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'We'll have to watch him closely': Michael Cheika pinpoints All Blacks' biggest threat