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Earls versus Sonny Bill the headline clash between backlines

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James Mortimer     07 Jun 2012     Getty Images

Munster number nine Conor Murray will play against snap passing sensation Aaron Smith, and the 23-year-olds will be interestingly matched, with some rating the Irish halfback as one of the better kickers from the base of the ruck, while the Highlanders tyro is already receiving plaudits as one of the smoothest passers seen in New Zealand rugby in a while.

But it will be the numerically mismatched (by weight at least) clash between Murray’s Munster development team-mate Keith Earls and Sonny Bill Williams at second five-eighth, with nearly 20 kg difference between the vastly different strike backs, that will be eagerly awaited.

Earls’ inclusion could spark some brilliant attack from the Irish midfield, as he has experience as a wing and fullback, but how he operates in the crucial channels against one of the most talented ball players in All Blacks colours could define the test.

Williams earns the starting 12 jersey on merit and form, and while veteran Gordon D’Arcy could have featured as a defensive blockade against the Chiefs star, his Leinster partnership with the legendary Brian O’Driscoll has been broken up in favour of inclusion of the St. Munchin’s prodigy Earls.

The 24-year-old is now thrust into a defensive position where lack of security has led to obvious test vulnerability, but has proven wiles that will test the All Blacks centres.

O’Driscoll is predictably named at centre, going head-to-head against Conrad Smith in a duel that sees two of the more cerebral thirteens in world rugby battle it out.

Smith will have some adjustment on his plate, with Williams a different beast than Ma’a Nonu, while the Irish captain will be without his fore-mentioned provincial partner in crime D'Arcy.

Out wide Israel Dagg is the only All Blacks incumbent in the back three, with Cory Jane and Richard Kahui’s injuries forcing new wings with debutant Julian Savea and Crusaders flyer Zac Guildford.

Savea brings a powerful game to the table, one not seen in a Black jersey in some time, while Guildford’s turnaround and earning of a test starting recall is testament to the young man’s determination to right some wrongs off the field.

Fergus McFaddon and Simon Zebo constitute the starting Irish wingmen, with the Hollywood named Zebo capping a remarkable promotion where the former Ireland wolfhound (the Irish A team) earns international honours after making his Munster debut in 2010.

The well-credentialed Rob Kearney’s presence at the back for Ireland should deter the All Blacks from applying a persistent long kicking game against the visitors, with the European Player of the Year rated as one of the best men under the high ball in Europe.

Still, his clash with stepping prodigy Dagg will be another scrap worth the price of admission.

Naturally, the hopes of both teams could rely on their remarkable conductors, with Jonathan Sexton’s dethroning of Ronan O’Gara similar to how Dan Carter rose above Andrew Mehrtens and Carlos Spencer in his own rise some years ago.

Sexton, now a multiple Heineken Cup winner, is already rated amongst the better first five-eighths that the Emerald Isle has produced – and he comes up against one of the finest of all time – as Carter prepares to make a test return since injuring his groin last year.