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Williams named at center for England test

November 6, 2014

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Sonny Bill Williams has been named at inside center in the New Zealand team to play England at Twickenham on Saturday in what may be the toughest test of his stop-start rugby union career.

Williams was chosen ahead of Malakai Fekitoa and Ryan Crotty to partner Conrad Smith in midfield in only his second test since returning to rugby after two years in rugby league.

Williams marked his return to rugby by scoring two tries against the United States last weekend and now has the chance to establish himself at inside center in the absence of the injured Ma’a Nonu.

The All Blacks selectors chose Aaron Cruden to start at flyhalf and Beauden Barrett on the bench, deciding not to risk Dan Carter too soon in his return from injury.

Carter, the world’s top test scorer with 1,446 points, played 30 minutes against the United States in his first test appearance of the year, making his return from a broken leg. The selectors have chosen not to rush him back for what might be the toughest test of New Zealand’s British tour. The All Blacks also play Scotland and Wales on each of the next two weekends.

Cruden’s selection indicates he has won back the selectors’ confidence after being suspended for two tests for missing a team flight to Argentina in August after a late night drinking session.

He wasn’t selected for tests against South Africa and Argentina during the Rugby Championship and was later left out of the team which played Australia in third Bledisloe Cup test.

Aaron Smith will start his 11th test of the season at scrumhalf in a well-established partnership with Cruden and as part of an All Blacks team restored to full strength.

Dagg remains at fullback, resuming his regular combination in the back three with wingers Ben Smith and Julian Savea while center Conrad Smith will play his 84th test.

Saturday’s test, at the venue of next year’s World Cup final, is seen as a major test for New Zealand as they prepare to defend their world title.

“This test match is a great opportunity to once again experience the atmosphere of Twickenham and to lay down a marker of where we are currently at in relation to our opponents, England,” head coach Steve Hansen said. “We are extremely excited about this challenge and looking forward to it immensely.”

Williams’ selection at inside center gives him a rare starting opportunity against a top tier nation. While he made his All Blacks debut against England in 2010, he was on the bench for the crucial matches of the 2011 World Cup and has never been No. 1 in his position.

He played dynamically against the United States but that said more about the caliber of the opposition than his ability as a rugby player. England will offer a much more searching test of his quality as an All Black.

Keiran Read, who captained the team against the United States, is at No. 8 but hands the captaincy to Richie McCaw, who plays his 135th test match. Jerome Kaino has been named as blindside flanker, while Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick resume their lock partnership.

Wyatt Crockett, who missed the U.S. test with a minor injury, returns at loosehead prop, combining in the front row with hooker Dane Coles and tighthead Owen Franks.

“Having played England already three times this year, at the beginning of our season, and again having the opportunity to play them at the end of season, will tell us a lot about how much our game has progressed,” Hansen said.

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New Zealand: Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Sonny Bill Williams, Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith, Keiran Read, Richie McCaw (captain), Jerome Kaino, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Wyatt Crockett.

Reserves: Keven Mealamu, Ben Franks, Charlie Faumuina, Patrick Tuipulotu, Liam Messam, T.J. Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Ryan Crotty.

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