WELLINGTON (Reuters) - All Blacks fullback Ben Smith will end his rugby sabbatical on Friday in the Otago Highlanders’ pre-season friendly against the New South Wales Waratahs in Queenstown.
The 31-year-old has not played since the All Blacks’ victory over Australia in the Rugby Championship last August, his last match before embarking on a New Zealand Rugby-approved hiatus.
Smith said at the time that he was taking a total break from the sport and intended to spend time travelling with his family.
Highlanders coach Aaron Mauger named a 32-man squad for Friday’s Super Rugby warm-up, indicating many of the players involved would likely get around 40 minutes of action as both sides fine-tune their preparations ahead of the new season.
“There is plenty of competition within the team,” Mauger said in a statement. “Some guys there who have a bit of experience and then there are some new guys.
“We’ll see how they go in the next couple of games and learn a bit about them.”
Smith has become All Blacks coach Steve Hansen’s first-choice fullback in recent seasons but will need to fend off the challenge of some younger players for the world champions’ number 15 jersey later in the year.
The Wellington Hurricanes’ Jordie Barrett impressed in the third test against the British and Irish Lions before he needed shoulder surgery and was replaced by Damian McKenzie for the Rugby Championship.
The versatile McKenzie was arguably New Zealand’s player of the southern hemisphere tournament but is expected to spend more time at flyhalf when the Super Rugby season kicks off under new Waikato Chiefs coach Colin Cooper.
Canterbury Crusaders fullback David Havili also impressed in his few opportunities on the All Blacks’ end-of-year tour, while his Super Rugby team mate Israel Dagg is also expected to return from injury to contend in a congested outside back contingent.
The revamped Super Rugby competition, reduced to 15 teams this year, starts on Feb. 17 with a round of matches involving four sides in the South Africa conference.
The Highlanders host the Auckland Blues in their first game on Feb. 23, while Australia’s Waratahs host South Africa’s Stormers on Feb. 24.
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by John O'Brien