9 Jun 2016

Cruden and midfielders face toughest test for All Blacks

6:39 pm on 9 June 2016

All Blacks first-five Aaron Cruden has been entrusted with filling the inimitable boots of Dan Carter, while an untested midfield combination could face a torrid night against Wales.

Coach Steve Hansen named just two uncapped players in his squad for the All Blacks' test against Wales on Saturday, their first match since the team lost six stalwarts following last year's World Cup triumph in England.

Loose forward Ardie Savea and centre Seta Tamanivalu are on the bench but could make their test debuts at Eden Park, with Hansen preferring to select players he had brought through in the previous World Cup cycle to replace his retired veterans.

Cruden, 27, who has already accumulated more than 30 caps, has been given the chance to show he can be Carter's permanent replacement, with Beauden Barrett again preferred off the bench, where he can cover fullback and number 10.

Cruden admitted he was feeling a little more nervous than usual as he prepared for his first match in the black jersey in 19 months.

"It's been a long time since my last test to this one coming up this weekend, so obviously extremely excited, a few extra nerves around as well - which I think is only natural.

"When I found out earlier in the week that I'd be starting I couldn't help but have a smile on my face, and now it's just about getting out there and nailing my role and enjoying the occasion."

Malakai Fekitoa and Ryan Crotty have been given their first opportunity to cement their midfield partnership, following the international retirements of Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu.

The duo will start together for the first time against Wales on Saturday night, and will be targeted by the experienced and rather large Welsh midfield duo of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies, who have played more than 100 tests between them.

Crotty conceded his combination with Fekitoa was still developing, and said communication on attack and defence would be key to their performance against their battle-hardened opposites.

"It's just time training together, especially defensively, just getting that combination going - so just getting clear on that and getting that combination nice and clear.

"They're experienced, quality test-match-proven players and big boys, so we've been doing heaps of tackling practice this week and hopefully we can do the job."

Waisake Naholo replaces the injured Nehe Milner-Skudder on the right wing, while heir apparent Sam Cane replaces retired legend Richie McCaw at openside flanker.

Number eight Kieran Read assumes the captaincy in a tried and tested forward pack, with the only changes from the eight who started the Rugby World Cup final coming due to McCaw's retirement and Sam Whitelock's hamstring injury.

Luke Romano replaces Whitelock, while hooker Nathan Harris, who suffered a broken ankle against the United States in late 2014, has been recalled after being preferred to Codie Taylor, and will come off the bench.