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New arrival could determine center’s appearance

August 15, 2014

SYDNEY (AP) — Australia plans to test out New Zealand’s rookie center Malakai Fekitoa, who is likely to replace an absent Conrad Smith in Saturday’s Rugby Championship opener.

The All Blacks are all but resigned to being without 77-test veteran Smith for the first Bledisloe Cup match of the season at the former Olympic stadium.

Smith returned home to Wellington on Friday to be with his expectant wife — with the baby now expected two weeks before it was originally due — and 22-year-old Fekitoa, who has played just one test, was named as his replacement.

“If it goes really well, he could possibly be back. But we’re not holding our breath on that,” New Zealand coach Steve Hansen said.

Hard-tackling Fekitoa made his starting debut against England in June and McCaw believes he can fill the void at outside center if Smith fails to return.

“It’s happened enough times over the past and just look at the last test we played where Conrad broke his thumb. Malakai was the last guy who played at center in our last test, so him slotting in will be fine,” McCaw said on Friday.

Wallabies captain Michael Hooper respects Fekitoa after his “cracking year with the Highlanders” but said the hosts will target the test novice.

“We understand it’s a new player who will come in ... and you’ve got to try out those areas and see what you do,” Hooper said.

If Smith does not play, Crusaders center Ryan Crotty will take Fekitoa’s place on the reserves bench.

The Wallabies will be attempting to stop New Zealand’s record 17-match winning streak and to take first blood in the bilateral Bledisloe Cup, which the All Blacks have held since 2003. The New Zealanders are coming off a three-test home series sweep of England.

In a bid to change the recent dynamics, Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie selected Kurtley Beale at flyhalf in a recast backline, replacing Bernard Foley, who led Australia to three wins over France just two months ago.

Beale played in the centers, outside Foley, for the Super Rugby-champion New South Wales Waratahs, and has played only seven tests at flyhalf, but McKenzie is relying on the 42-test veteran’s “X-factor” to give the Wallabies something extra in attack.

“Against the All Blacks, you’ve got to go out there and have a crack ... we need to take a few risks,” McKenzie said this week.

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