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Muliaina, Smith return hinted at for All Blacks

Updated: September 12, 2011, 19:39

HAMILTON, New Zealand(AP) Veteran backs Mils Muliaina and Conrad Smith look like returning for New Zealand amid limited lineup changes for the Rugby World Cup match against Japan on Friday.

Assistant coach Steve Hansen hinted on Tuesday at a recall for the pair, and that there wouldn't be wholesale changes like France revealed, in making 11 for the other Pool A match against Canada this weekend. The All Blacks name their team on Wednesday.

Muliaina, sitting on 98 tests, and Smith were unexpectedly left out of the opening 41-10 win over Tonga, and their replacements, Israel Dagg and Sonny Bill Williams, had starring roles.

"You might see Conrad Smith coming back into the centers, I don't think too many people are going to see that as a negative,'' Hansen said.

"You might see someone like Mils get a start so we can see which one of (him and Dagg) is playing the best to go through the rest of the tournament.''

Other fit players who missed the Tonga win were hooker Keven Mealamu, prop John Afoa, scrumhalf Andy Ellis, and winger Zac Guildford. Flanker Adam Thomson was back training after missing the opener with a hyper-extended elbow. If the selectors do not deem Thomson ready, then the lack of reserve loose forwards might mean captain Richie McCaw is virtually certain to play in his 100th test at Waikato Stadium.

New Zealand's media and former players have lashed the All Blacks selectors with advice to stop experimenting with the lineup, harking to their rotation strategy which failed at the last World Cup, and to choose the best side and stick with it to let it develop rhythm for the playoffs run.

Next week's match against France should determine what path is taken in the knockout stage. But Hansen said they had a strategy for the pool, and it has proved right so far.

"We've had one game, we selected a side that we believe was pretty much the strongest side we could have picked for that game, and the core of that side you'll see again on Friday,'' Hansen said.

"But in saying that, it is a long tournament and you are going to need to bring people in and out of it on occasions but not wholesale changes.

He said the selectors weren't concerned with all the outside advice and criticism.

"Our job is to make sure we stay to the plan we've elected and we're confident that our plan is the right one.

"Everyone at the moment out there is feeling a bit of pressure because it's been 24 years since we've had (the) Webb Ellis (Cup), but we're sure of the road we need to take and we're taking that road.

"We're only one game into it and you just need to trust us that we'll get this task done.''

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