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Ben Smith edges Israel Dagg for All Blacks fullback role in Rugby Championships opener

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand - Ben Smith has been preferred to Israel Dagg at fullback in the All Blacks' lineup for Saturday's Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup opener against Australia.

Smith started at fullback while Dagg battled a knee injury in the last two of New Zealand's test matches against England in June but Dagg, now fully fit, had been widely expected to return to the starting lineup in the team that was announced Thursday.

The selection of Smith left no place for Dagg in the 23-man squad for the Sydney match. Smith will combine with Cory Jane and Julian Savea in the back three, while Conrad Smith returns from injury to re-establish his midfield partnership with Ma'a Nonu.

Wyatt Crockett will start at loosehead prop in the place of injured veteran Tony Woodcock.

Dagg has played 38 tests at fullback and has been New Zealand's first choice in the position for the last three years. He started 13 of the All Blacks' 14 tests last season and 13 out of 14 in 2012, but his form has faltered recently while Smith has grown into the fullback role while also playing at wing and centre.

"It was a tough team to select in many ways because we have a lot of players in good form," All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said. "But in the end we selected the group that we felt could get the job done.

"An example of that is Ben Smith. While we have been very happy with Israel Dagg's performances at 15, Ben has come in and raised the bar to another level. The challenge for Israel now is to get his performances — when he gets the opportunity — to an even higher level."

Prop Joe Moody has been included on the bench and will make his test debut if he takes the field, while young centre Malakai Fekitoa will cover the outside backs positions.

Veteran flanker Liam Messam has been left out of a match 23, with Jerome Kaino starting on the blindside and Steven Luatua returning to the bench.

Dan Carter was not considered due to a broken leg, making way for Aaron Cruden to start at flyhalf and Beauden Barrett on the bench.

The All Blacks will be bidding for a record 18th straight test win while also trying to maintain their 12-year hold on the Bledisloe Cup, which is contested in tests against Australia.

"We are really happy with our build-up and looking to put the finishing touches to our game over the next few days," Hansen said. "The Bledisloe Cup is an extremely important trophy for us all and there is a strong desire within the group to begin the Rugby Championship on a positive note with a quality performance."

Australia earlier this week named Kurtley Beale ahead of Bernard Foley at flyhalf in a bold selection move. Beale played at inside centre throughout the season for Super Rugby champions the New South Wales Waratahs.

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New Zealand: Ben Smith, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (captain), Jerome Kaino, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Wyatt Crockett.

Reserves: Keven Mealamu, Ben Franks, Joe Moody, Steven Luatua, Sam Cane, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Malakai Fekitoa.

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