Hansen looks to future with team for Italy test
No Richie McCaw, no Dan Carter, no problem.
That's the assertion of All Blacks coach Steve Hansen after making 14 changes to his starting side and installing No 8 Kieran Read as captain against Italy on Sunday.
It is a side that should have dominated the news but the players' day off proved to be one of the more action-packed of the tour.
That was largely because blindside flanker Adam Thomson's seemingly innocuous judicial hearing turned into a farce.
He rejoined the team in Rome late last night to discover his day at Heathrow may have been a waste of time after the International Rugby Board's new Australian chief executive Brett Gosper over-zealously tweeted the need for a review of the one-week suspension.
IRB interfering, if it turns out to be more than an idle tweet, will not detract from the All Blacks' focus on Italy.
The side named is notable and not just because it's the biggest back-to-back overhaul since Graham Henry's controversial full rotation in 2005. Wing Julian Savea is the only player left from the side that started against Scotland.
The bigger picture is a glimpse into a future where the All Blacks will have to start a new era without their two influential leaders.
Though Carter will be in the reserves at Stadio Olimpico, it will be the first time the All Blacks have started without their two talismen since the World Cup pool match against Canada last year. Carter was to captain the side that day before pulling a groin muscle that forced him out of the tournament.
The need to plan for the future has crystallised.
Read, in his 46th test, is clearly McCaw's successor and Italy provides a perfect chance for him to stamp his mark on a side he may well be leading into a three test series with France in June.
For Hansen it is a chance to gauge the depth of the leadership he believes is now driving the side.
"We've got a group of leaders who are sharing the leadership load - it's not just Richie," Hansen said.
"Though he's a marvellous, marvellous rugby player and where he leads greatest of all is in his performance.
"The understanding of the game, the understanding of the moment and understanding how we deal with that unexpected thing is a shared load.
"Kieran, I think, will step in there and do that well.
"He's also one of our leading players and to be the captain of any All Black team you have to be performing. He'll do that."
Of critical importance is the continuing development of Aaron Cruden and Sam Cane, the two men filling the jerseys of Carter and McCaw at No 10 and No 7.
"We are saying to ourselves, ‘here we are going to play this game without two of the greatest players of all time', that in itself is a great challenge," Hansen said.
"Will they [Cruden and Cane] perform to the same level? Probably not but you wouldn't expect them to because they aren't in the same stage of their career.
"What you would expect is the other people around them to do a little bit more and they are capable of that, so we should be fine," he said.
Even after making 14 changes, Hansen's starting side has 514 caps with another 219 on the bench and should be far too good for Italy.