Talented Blues pair ready to take next step
The scene is familiar. All Blacks coach Steven Hansen again sat today with two rookies alongside him. Only this time there was more than a hint of excitement at the start of something special.
Dane Coles' starting debut in Auckland and Jeremy Thrush's breakthrough in Christchurch were similar to this, but the wide-spread thirst to see if Steven Luatua and Charles Piutau can live up to their undoubted potential is not comparable. Both have the skills to be long-term All Blacks.
While Luatua and Piutau burst on to the public's radar this season with the Blues, they've been flashing on the All Blacks' modem for some time; ever since they were a part of the last New Zealand under-20 team to win a world crown in 2011.
Indeed, it was a talented team Dave Rennie assembled. Beauden Barrett, Sam Cane and Brodie Retallick would also graduate to the All Blacks, along with Blues midfielder Francis Saili, the only player not to make the bench in the current squad.
Rennie also selected Brad Shields, TJ Perenara, Dominic Bird, Luke Whitelock and Ben Tameifuna, many of whom are also destined for another black jersey in the not-too-distant future.
"They came into prominence just prior to going away with the New Zealand under-20s," Hansen said of Luatua and Piutau today.
"They played particularly well there. Charles has been in the NPC side going really well for a couple of years now. Both of them have had good Super Rugby tournaments. It's now about taking that next step.
"They are both talented young men but they're just at the start. They've got a lot of work to do and they realise that but it is exciting to have talent like this in the group. We feel it's now time to give them some more experience."
Reaching the All Blacks is a huge personal milestone, but for these two Auckland prodigies, the emotion is magnified by achieving the rare feat alongside a close friend.
"It's awesome as an individual to achieve this but to share it with the other guys that I've played with growing up makes it more special," said Piutau, who is set for a debut from the bench at fullback.
"It's something that we can cherish. There are nerves but it's being able to get clarity on my roles and what I have to do. I guess that will take care of the nerves."
Luatua has been used as a lock throughout his career and, with Thrush left out, will be required to cover those duties. But his future is at No 6. Over the last three weeks the dynamic 22-year-old has trained in both second-row roles but Hansen made it clear that won't last.
All going to plan Luatua will replace Victor Vito, who earns his first start of the series, in the second half.
"Ideally we would just have him focus on that [No 6] job this week but to get Matt [Todd] on we have to take that risk of having him worry about two jobs," Hansen said. "Thrush has done a really good job. We're happy with where he's at. But to get the two young loosies on the bench we had to make a decision there. We don't foresee Steven having to play lock too often."
There has been intense speculation about the makeup of the All Blacks midfield, where Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu will start their 46th test together. With the series wrapped up in Christchurch it was thought this may have been a chance to throw Ben Smith in at centre.
Instead, Hansen revealed Rene Ranger, who starts on the left wing and who confirmed today he will head to France at the end of the year, could see time there.
"We thought about playing Ben at centre but he's been playing well on the wing so we didn't want to change too much," Hansen said. "We might give Rene a run there.
"We came to the conclusion we're loving what Ben is doing on the wing and giving him the opportunity to cement that is good for him.
"We've got a lot of respect for this French side. Apart from two outstanding tries the other night they were still in the game. We've made the changes we think we can."