All Blacks retain SBW, England starting Ashton
LONDON (AP) — The All Blacks' selectors resisted pressure to drop out-of-form center Sonny Bill Williams while England gave winger Chris Ashton his first start in four years for their test on Saturday.
Williams was retained for the Twickenham test on Thursday and will combine in midfield with rising star Jack Goodhue, who returns after a bout of glandular fever.
Damian McKenzie was also retained at fullback as New Zealand pursues the mainly theoretical use of two playmakers in its starting XV.
Ardie Savea will again start at flanker in place of the injured Sam Cane, and Karl Tu'inukuafe will play at loosehead prop in place of Joe Moody, who will miss the remainder of the season after an eye injury.
Williams is the most contentious selection. His year has been affected by injuries but he has also been inconsistent in the All Blacks' backplay, lacking the pace or the handling skills of the remainder of the New Zealand backline.
Williams also was responsible for some defensive lapses against Australia two weeks ago at Yokohama, Japan, but held onto his spot in favor of Ryan Crotty against England.
Coach Steve Hansen has persisted with Williams throughout his tenure, despite some criticism of the former rugby league star's performances.
McKenzie was preferred at fullback to the highly rated Ben Smith, who continues his exile on the wing. In theory, McKenzie should offer a second playmaking option after flyhalf Beauden Barrett but in the cut and thrust of a modern test match, that option rarely presents itself.
McKenzie does provide a safe pair of hands if England pursues a kicking game.
The All Blacks' forward pack is the strongest that can be selected, taking injuries into account. Lock Brodie Retallick, the international player of 2017, returns to the starting lineup, and hooker Dane Coles, who made his first test appearance in a year against Japan last weekend, is in the reserves.
The loss of Moody is not the major blow it might have been if Tu'inukuafe had not had the chance to establish himself as an outstanding scrummager.
Scrumhalf Aaron Smith is out of form and was benched for the match against Australia but has been challenged to rediscover his best form.
Goodhue strengthens the backline and England will struggle to match the pace of McKenzie and winger Rieko Ioane.
England "will have gained a lot of confidence from their win over South Africa," Hansen said. "However, for us it's about making our own statement. To do that, we'll need to bring our own intensity and accuracy to an even higher level throughout the game."
Ashton is on the right wing in place of Jack Nowell after impressing during a 15-minute spell as a substitute in the 12-11 victory over South Africa last weekend.
The 31-year-old Ashton has amassed 40 caps in an international career interrupted by suspension, falling out of favor with successive England coaches, and a season-long spell in Toulon.
Nowell drops to the bench, and there is no place for Manu Tuilagi despite his recovery from the groin strain that ruled him out against the Springboks.
The two other changes see Ben Moon come in for Alec Hepburn at loosehead prop, and Sam Underhill replace Tom Curry, who has been ruled out of the remainder of the autumn by an ankle injury.
Courtney Lawes returns to the reserves after overcoming a lower back problem.
England: Elliot Daly, Chris Ashton, Henry Slade, Ben Te'o, Jonny May, Owen Farrell (co-captain), Ben Youngs; Mark Wilson, Sam Underhill, Brad Shields, George Kruis, Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler, Dylan Hartley (co-captain), Ben Moon. Reserves: Jamie George, Alec Hepburn, Harry Williams, Charlie Ewels, Courtney Lawes, Danny Care, George Ford, Jack Nowell.
New Zealand: Damian McKenzie, Ben Smith, Jack Goodhue, Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read (captain), Ardie Savea, Liam Squire, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Karl Tu'inukuafe. Reserves: Dane Coles, Ofa Tuungafasi, Nepo Laulala, Scott Barrett, Matt Todd, TJ Perenara, Richie Mo'unga, Ryan Crotty.