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DURBAN (Reuters) - New Zealand will aim for a clean sweep in this season's Rugby Championship when they take on struggling South Africa in Durban on Saturday to lift the mood around the squad after scrumhalf Aaron Smith was sent home in disgrace.
Smith, arguably the world’s leading number nine, was suspended for the match by New Zealand Rugby after admitting a liaison with a women in a disabled toilet while with the team at Christchurch Airport last month.
It would take a lot to disrupt this rampant All Blacks side, who have won all five of their Rugby Championship matches so far.
It is, however, perhaps the first time this season that their mental fortitude will be tested as the incident hogs sporting headlines around the world and puts the team in the spotlight for the wrong reasons.
According to coach Steve Hansen, the decision to suspend Smith was unanimous within the leadership group of players.
His replacement at scrumhalf will be TJ Perenara, who started the 36-17 victory over Argentina last weekend when Smith was rested.
Perenara will now make consecutive starts for the first time in his 24-test international career.
"Obviously he's (Smith) a world-class player and you want to be able to play him but TJ has had three good stints there now," Hansen told reporters.
"He played really well when he came off the bench against Argentina (in New Zealand), a good portion of the game against South Africa in Christchurch and then got a start against Argentina and played well.”
Other than Smith's omission, Hansen's selections were as expected, with flanker Jerome Kaino and wing Waisake Naholo returning from injury.
Loose-forward Matt Todd has been given a start ahead of Ardie Savea, who dropped to the bench.
South Africa have yet to put together a convincing 80 minutes in 2016, but victory would likely secure them a second-place finish in the standings and go some way to turning public opinion in coach Allister Coetzee’s favour.
“The All Blacks will be a huge Test, they are the number one side in the world and they have great form at the moment,” Coetzee said on Thursday.
“It is important for us to end the campaign with a good performance. What I would like to see is that we keep on improving as a team and build on our continuity and converting more of our opportunities into points.”
Coetzee has stuck with the trusted boot of Morne Steyn at flyhalf after his match-winning performance in the scrappy 18-10 victory over Australia last weekend.
The only two changes to his starting lineup are both injury-enforced as scrumhalf Faf de Klerk and centre Damian de Allende come in for Rudy Paige and Jesse Kriel respectively.
New Zealand have already been crowned champions of the southern hemisphere competition this season.
Reporting by Nick Said; Editing by Toby Davis