Barrett, McKenzie retained in All Blacks XV to play Italy
Flyhalf Beauden Barrett and fullback Damian McKenzie have been retained by the All Blacks in defiance of staunch critics for Saturday's season-ending test against Italy at Rome.
The starting lineup contains only four players who also started last weekend in the 16-9 loss to Ireland, and the retention of Barrett and McKenzie seems almost a calculated challenge to pundits who criticized their performance in that match.
Barrett, a two-time world player of the year, has struggled this year to devise tactical means to unlock stifling defenses such as the one Ireland mounted in Dublin. McKenzie, once favored by the selectors as a flyhalf understudy to Barrett, has also lacked impact at fullback and in the dual playmaker game plan New Zealand has tried to develop.
The solution seemed to be to play Barrett at fullback and allow the in-form Richie Mo'unga to start at flyhalf, a move that was widely anticipated to be the feature of the selection for the test against Italy. But Mo'unga remains on the bench as the selectors give their two favored playmakers another chance to find cohesion.
The other players retained from the historic loss to Ireland were captain Kieran Read and flanker Ardie Savea, who has been New Zealand's best player on the tour, playing as a replacement for the injured Sam Cane.
There are otherwise 11 changes to the starting lineup in an expected move to give backup players a starting opportunity. There are notable returns for hooker Dane Coles and inside center Ngani Laumape, who may be trialing a more regular starting role as the answer to the lack of penetration from the All Blacks' midfield.
The powerful Laumape scored four tries against Japan on tour and seems likely to bring line-breaking ability which the All Blacks have recently been lacking. The aging and injury-prone Sonny Bill Williams is unlikely on current form to be chosen for next year's Rugby World Cup and Laumape seems an obvious successor.
He combines on Saturday with Anton Lienert-Brown, while Jordie Barrett, in the middle of a long form slump, has been moved from fullback to the wing to give McKenzie a chance to redeem his run of poor performances.
Blindside flanker remains a major problem for the selectors and they have chosen Vaea Fifita in that position, giving him a chance to prove his worth in New Zealand's last test of 2018. Scott Barrett, who has been outstanding off the bench in that role during this tour, is moved to lock with Patrick Tuipolutu.
TJ Perenara will start at scrumhalf and has a chance to claim that role more permanently as regular No. 9 Aaron Smith is another player out of form. Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, named on the bench, could leapfrog both players into the starting scrumhalf role because of his superior passing game.
The All Blacks have faced a barrage of criticism since losing to Ireland which comes after a season of inconsistent form, raising questions around the direction the selectors are taking a year out from the Rugby World Cup. Coach Steve Hansen said the team was trying to develop new aspects to its game.
"The group is aware that this is our last week together and they're determined to really prepare well, play well and enjoy every aspect of the week," Hansen said. "After two big tests (against England and Ireland) it's been necessary to make some changes and those guys who have come in have provided a real energy and enthusiasm to our week's preparation."
Italy coach Conor O'Shea made just one change to his starting lineup, with Luca Sperandio coming in on the wing for the injured Mattia Bellini.
The Azzurri played well against Australia last weekend but a combination of errors and controversial refereeing decisions saw them lose 26-7.
"There's a great test ahead of us against the current world champions," O'Shea said. "We need to have the same approach we had against Australia on the pitch. We want to finish the November test matches with a good performance, playing our best rugby."
Italy: Jayden Hayward, Tommaso Benvenuti, Michele Campagnaro, Tommaso Castello, Luca Sperandio, Tommaso Allan, Tito Tebaldi; Abraham Steyn, Jake Polledri, Sebastian Negri, Dean Budd, Alessandro Zanni, Simone Ferrari, Leonardo Ghiraldini (captain), Andrea Lovotti. Reserves: Luca Bigi, Cherif Traore, Tiziano Pasquali, Marco Fuser, Johan Meyer, Guglielmo Palazzani, Luca Morisi, Edoardo Padovani.
New Zealand: Damian McKenzie, Jordie Barrett, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ngani Laumape, Waisake Naholo, Beauden Barrett, T.J. Pernara; Kieran Read (captain), Ardie Savea, Vaea Fifita, Scott Barrett, Patrick Tuipulotu, Nepo Laulala, Dane Coles, Ofa Tuungafasi. Reserves: Nathan Haris, Karl Tu'inukuafe, Angus Ta'avao, Brodie Retallick, Dalton Papalii, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Richie Mo'unga, Rieko Ioane.