Ben Smith All Blacks choose Barrett, Mo’unga for World Cup opener

Ben Smith All Blacks choose Barrett, Mo’unga for World Cup opener

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TOKYO (AP) — Ryan Crotty took the middle chair at the interview table and grimaced for no particular reason. His frown turned upside down when Richie Mo’unga put his right hand on Crotty’s neck and started massaging it.

In front of about 50 media at New Zealand’s Rugby World Cup news conference.

Asked if he was showing off their tight combination, Mo’unga laughed.

“There’s other things we do,” he said, teasingly and to much mirth, “like coffees, catchups … not just neck rubs.”

This was Mo’unga taking charge, just as his backline mate Crotty and the rest of the All Blacks expect him to against South Africa in their blockbuster opening pool game on Saturday when New Zealand begins its World Cup title defense in Yokohama.

Mo’unga was picked at flyhalf — or first five-eighths in New Zealand’s rugby vocab — while Beauden Barrett, the incumbent who was world player of the year as the flyhalf in 2016 and ’17, was kept at fullback. Meanwhile, Ben Smith, regarded as New Zealand’s best fullback, was selected among the reserves.

The selections on Thursday confirmed the dual playmaker model the All Blacks unveiled in July in the Rugby Championship test against South Africa, and against Australia twice, was no longer an experiment. It hasn’t been an outright success, either. The All Blacks have a win, loss, and draw in those matches.

“Right now he’s the person lea

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