Workmanlike England picked as 'dangerous'
Steve Hansen reckons England are a "dangerous" foe in Saturday's series opening test at Eden Park, and his mostly conservative selection reflects that.
Hansen has not sprung any real surprises in his starting XV to face the English. He has opted for the young legs and more dynamic attributes of Dane Coles at hooker, handed Kieran Read's vacated No 8 jersey to the in-form Jerome Kaino, who will play his first test since the World Cup final of 2011, and choosen incumbent Aaron Cruden at No 10 despite a lack of recent match play - and a scratchy last outing for the Chiefs.
The freshness and unknown elements come on the bench where there are three potential test debutants in standout Blues lock Patrick Tuipulotu, Hurricanes halfback TJ Perenara and dazzling Highlanders midfielder Malakai Fekitoa.
Hansen was careful to pay full respect to an English team that may be without its contingent who played in the Premiership final last weekend, but still presented a formidable obstacle to an All Blacks side that was seldom at its best first up in June.
"There's been a lot of talk in the media about this being a poor England side, but when you go through them they've all played internationals in the last 12 months, and there are not that many changes from the last time we played them - and that was a great contest.
"We expect them to turn up, they've clearly got confidence in who they are and what they're doing. Their environment seems to be one of just keeping quiet and get on and do the work, and that makes them dangerous.
"They've improved their skillsets and they want to play rugby which again makes them more dangerous.
"I'd imagine they'll look to drive us a lot in the lineouts, look to come up the middle of the park and use switches and try see if we're got our short-side defence sorted out, and maybe turn us around a wee bit too if its wet. We expect be a really good contest."
Hansen said his preference at first five-eighth for Cruden ahead of the rather more in-form Beauden Barrett came down to three key elements.
"One, he's the incumbent; two, we think he plays better starting than coming off the bench; three, he's had a couple of games under his belt and he's back to his cheeky self around here.
"We just think he's ready to go, he's a good reader of the game, a good organiser, and I believe he's really comfortable now in that role. We've got a lot of belief in him and think he'll do a great job.
"Five-eighth is a difficult position to play in the biggest arena, you've got to have composure, and both young guys we've got in this team at the moment are showing that."
Kaino's return from Japan to add to his 48 test caps, at a time when Read's ongoing head problems create an opening at No 8, was timely to say the least.
"I never wanted him to go in the first place, and we had a bit of a discussion about that," Hansen said today.
"But he always said he'd come back and he's come back at the right time. I think he's like a caged animal - he's pretty keen to get out there."
With Julian Savea diagnosed with bruising on the inside of his knee, and only a possibility to return next week, Hansen was comfortable Cory Jane could fill the void.
"He'll be missed, but Cory brings his own style of game. He's not as big a guy obviously, but he's got some pretty special skills too.
"It probably improves our high ball catch - Cory is world class there. They're just different players. Julian is a beast, and Cory is your whippet, good on his feet and a great finisher. Cory enhances us just as much as what Julian does."
Hansen also offered an emphatic endorsement of Coles as the starting hooker.
"It's time for him to stand up now and make his mark. I think he feels in his own right it's time to have a crack and take over, so we're going to give him that opportunity and see if he can do that."
Fekitoa and Tuipulotu also deserved an early crack off the bench, the coach felt, because of their body of work in Super Rugby.
"They've both been in outstanding form, come into the camps and looked really at home, come into this test week and looked really at home, and the selectors en masse all felt they're ready to go.
"We're very confident in both those young men, and TJ for that matter. They're ready to take that next step."
The All Blacks have a combined 968 caps in their match 23, with an average age of 27. They are riding a 14-test win streak and haven't lost at Eden Park since 1994.
All Blacks: Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Cory Jane, Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith, Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw (c), Liam Messam, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Keven Mealamu, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Patrick Tuipulotu, Victor Vito, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Malakai Fekitoa.
Which three first-fives would you have taken on the All Blacks' northern tour?