WELLINGTON, Sept 12 (Reuters) - Rugged blindside flanker Liam Messam has returned to the New Zealand side following a hamstring strain as the All Blacks expect a tough encounter at the breakdown against South Africa in their Rugby Championship clash in Auckland on Saturday.
Messam was a late withdrawal from the All Blacks side to face Australia in the opening contest of the tournament last month, allowing promising loose forward Steven Luatua to make his first start in a test match.
Luatua’s impressive performances in the All Blacks’ three victories so far in this year’s southern hemisphere championship put extreme pressure on Messam to regain his starting role when he recovered from the injury.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, however, said the 29-year-old Messam’s experience and physicality had swung selection in his favour to help combat a massive Springboks loose forward trio of Duane Vermuelen, Willem Alberts and Francois Louw.
”In selecting the team, there were some tough decisions to be made, none more so than between Liam and Steven,“ Hansen said. ”But in the end we have gone for Liam’s extra experience and physicality.
“The physical challenge will be huge as it always it is and the team that executes their game with the greatest effectiveness, clarity and intensity will be the one that comes out on top.”
Inside centre Ma‘a Nonu has also returned to the side after he missed the 28-13 victory over Argentina last Saturday in Hamilton in order to rest an ankle injury he had played with in the first two matches against Australia.
Francis Saili, who made his test debut last week in place of Nonu, has dropped out of the matchday 23 altogether.
Tighthead prop Owen Franks has also returned after a groin injury ruled him out the game in Hamilton, with Charlie Faumuina dropping to the bench.
Faumuina’s demotion, however, had little to do with the fact he caused a knee injury to Richie McCaw at Waikato Stadium when he landed on the captain’s left leg during a tackle.
McCaw will be replaced by Sam Cane, who will get his fourth start of the year at openside flanker with Matt Todd, who was brought into the squad when McCaw was ruled out for up to five weeks, on the bench.
Number eight Kieran Read, who was captain for three tests against France in June, will lead the side in McCaw’s absence.
Dane Coles has also been brought into the starting side in place of Andrew Hore as Hansen continues to give the Wellington Hurricanes’ hooker the opportunity to get test experience at a more intense level.
Local media have reported that Hore is expected to retire at the end of the Rugby Championship, which could leave Hansen’s succession plans for the hooking position for the 2015 World Cup delicately balanced.
If Hore does retire, Hansen will need to bring at least one more hooker through the ranks over the next 12 months, though questions are being asked as to whether Keven Mealamu could also last through until the 2015 tournament in England.
The 34-year-old Mealamu has suffered perennial calf problems in recent years and Hansen has recognised he may need to act sooner rather than later by bringing several promising players into the camp to introduce them to the test environment.
New Zealand: 15-Israel Dagg, 14-Ben Smith, 13-Conrad Smith, 12-Ma‘a Nonu, 11-Julian Savea, 10-Daniel Carter, 9-Aaron Smith, 8-Kieran Read (captain), 7-Sam Cane, 6-Liam Messam, 5-Sam Whitelock, 4-Brodie Retallick, 3-Owen Franks, 2-Dane Coles, 1-Tony Woodcock
Replacements: 16-Keven Mealamu, 17-Wyatt Crockett, 18-Charlie Faumuina, 19-Steven Luatua, 20-Matt Todd, 21-Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22-Beauden Barrett, 23-Charles Piutau (Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by John O‘Brien)