Ryan Crotty could return for first Lions test

Midfield combinations and the All Blacks have been plentiful in recent times. Friday night adds another one to the list, with Anton Lienert-Brown and Sonny Bill Williams paired together for the first time against Samoa at Eden Park.

Last year, with varying degrees of success, the All Blacks used four variations of Ryan Crotty, Malakai Fekitoa, George Moala and Lienert-Brown.

Crotty and Lienert-Brown emerged on top, with Fekitoa and Moala slipping out the picture for now.

SBW-ALB doesn't just roll off the tongue nicely. Their joint attacking threats could prove fruitful, even if their starting partnership is only short-lived.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen strongly indicated on Thursday Ryan Crotty should be fit for the first test against the Lions next week, despite carrying rib damage.

"He'll be right," Hansen said.

A Williams-Crotty duo remains the All Blacks' preference. It is seen as having the right balance of punch, panache and precision. On that basis Lienert-Brown probably has the most to gain from Friday's outing.

The All Blacks believe Lienert-Brown is better suited to centre; his footwork and offloading better utilised in a bit more space, on the outside of his man. But he is effectively going head-to-head with the dependable Crotty for that role, with both equally comfortable at second five-eighth.  

Up against the Samoan midfield comprising former Hurricanes utility Alapati Leiua and Bristol-bound Kieron Fonotia, expectations of Williams and Lienert-Brown running riot should be tempered given their unfamiliarity. Hansen just wants the pair to keep it simple.

That involves Williams, in his first test since the 2015 World Cup, crunching over the gain line and offering strong voice to Beauden Barrett. Lienert-Brown needs to continue his effectiveness on defence, in support and feed his outsides.

"A bit of fluidity and connection would be good but that will depend on the ball they get so the boys up-front will have to do the job first."

With Lienert-Brown and Williams given first crack, the All Blacks are preparing for stand-in captain Ben Smith to cover the midfield after giving Jordie Barrett's versatility the nod over fellow Hurricanes rookie Ngani Laumape on the bench.

Jordie Barrett has the advantage of going away on last year's end of season tour as an apprentice, while Laumape had to absorb everything thrown at him this week.   

"Bender has done the job in the midfield and Jordie could also do it if we had to go there twice."


Photo by: JOHN DAVIDSON/PHOTOSPORT (Ryan Crotty, pictured being tackled by Waisake Naholo, injured his ribs against the Highlanders, but could be back in time for the Lions' first test).