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Hansen keeps them guessing with third test team selection

The All Blacks sealed the series against Wales with a 36-22 victory in Wellington last Saturday.

FILE: New Zealand coach Steven Hansen at the team announcement of the squad to take on the Springboks in the Rugby Championship Test in Johannesburg. Picture: Reinart Toerien/EWN.

WELLINGTON - For a dead-rubber match in a series already won by the All Blacks, the issue of team selection for the third test against Wales in Dunedin has created much debate in rugby-mad New Zealand this week.

The All Blacks sealed the series against Wales with a 36-22 victory in Wellington last Saturday, having opened their international season with a 39-21 victory in the first game in Auckland on 11 June.

Steve Hansen's side had been under scrutiny for how they would evolve without six stalwarts who ended their international careers after anchoring the side to World Cup victory last year.

He named six uncapped players in his squad for the Wales series with an eye on regenerating the team for next year's British and Irish Lions tour and the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

So far, though, only centre Seta Tamanivalu and openside flanker Ardie Savea have made their debuts, with utility back Damian McKenzie, loose forwards Elliot Dixon and Liam Squire and prop Ofa Tu'ungafasi yet to make the matchday side.

If Hansen is considering giving those players, and possibly one-test flyhalf Lima Sopoaga, an opportunity in Dunedin, he was giving little away earlier this week.

"You'll have to wait until Thursday. There is no point asking questions about the selection of team," he told reporters on Sunday, adding that it made no sense to give his Wales counterpart Warren Galtland advance notice of the side.

"There's no point in telling 'Gats' about the team so he can prepare for it, he'll have to play the guessing game like you."

Local media took Hansen up on the challenge, suggesting it would be the perfect time to include Dixon for veteran Jerome Kaino as blindside flanker, while introducing the combative Squire off the bench.

Savea's dynamic performances have also prompted calls for him to be given a start ahead of incumbent Sam Cane, who served a four-year apprenticeship under former captain Richie McCaw.

Hansen's biggest issue, however, remains in midfield, where the departures of Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith to French clubs after the World Cup created a void.

Ryan Crotty and Malakai Fekitoa have been the preferred pairing so far, though they have not quite gelled as expected.

Hansen, however, said it would take time to rebuild a new pairing in the midfield, while Charlie Ngatai, who has not been considered due to concussion, and Sonny Bill Williams (Olympics) likely to press their claims in the Rugby Championship.

"I don't think we've filled all the gaps yet. It's too early after two tests," Hansen said. "We've got to fit Sonny back in when he comes back ... and Charlie Ngatai, he's a pretty special player too.

"Midfield, we're still working away quietly at."

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