McKenzie earns surprise start for All Blacks' Rugby Championship opener

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Damian McKenzie is the surprise pick in New Zealand's team to face Australia on Saturday in the opening match of the Rugby Championship.

With Jordie Barrett, who started the third and final Test against the British and Irish Lions in June, out with injury, Chiefs back McKenzie has been handed the number 15 jersey ahead of the vastly experienced Ben Smith and Israel Dagg.

Smith will start on the right wing in Sydney, while Dagg is not even in the matchday 23 announced by the All Blacks on Wednesday.

McKenzie was only listed in New Zealand's initial Rugby Championship squad as a replacement for Smith, who will take a sabbatical following the Bledisloe Cup matches in Sydney and Dunedin.

New Zealand's starting XV to face Australia also features Liam Squire at blindside flanker, at the expense of Jerome Kaino. Sonny Bill Williams will partner Ryan Crotty in the centres after the former completed a ban following his red card in the second Test against the Lions.

With Williams back from his ban, McKenzie handed just his third cap and Smith, Crotty and wing Rieko Ioane all fit again, the All Blacks' backline shows five changes from the third Test against the Lions.

Squire's inclusion marks the only change to New Zealand's pack.

"There's a real sense of excitement within the group and a desire to go out and perform well this weekend," said All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen.

"This Test will give us a great opportunity to gauge where we are at when it comes to things we have been working on since the Lions tour.

"We've had a great build-up here in Sydney and there's a single-minded focus. We're playing for our most significant trophy outside of the Rugby World Cup and it means a lot to us as a team. As always, it's going to be a massive occasion and we're looking forward to Saturday."

 

New Zealand team to face Australia: Damian McKenzie, Ben Smith, Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, Owen Franks, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Liam Squire, Sam Cane, Kieran Read.

Replacements: Nathan Harris, Wyatt Crockett, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Luke Romano, Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara, Lima Sopoaga, Anton Lienert-Brown.