Testing times for ABs with plenty to prove
LIAM NAPIER IN NEW PLYMOUTH
Like an astute examiner ready to scrutinise his pupil's assignments, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is about to find out whether his students of all ages can put theory into practice.
Not only are three rookies - Steven Luatua, Charles Piutau and Matt Todd - hovering under Hansen's red-marker pen in New Plymouth. Pressure is on blindside flanker Victor Vito, halfback Piri Weepu and, even, first five-eighth Dan Carter to submit A-standard performances in the final test against the French on Saturday.
Sure, the series was sealed in Christchurch last week but individual causes, as well as collective goals, should ensure the All Blacks don't lack motivation.
Hansen has carefully managed his greenhorns over the last three weeks. Lock Jeremy Thrush and prop Ben Afeaki had their first tastes while hooker Dane Coles earned two starts before succumbing to a calf injury.
Sections of the public wanted to see Luatua's athletic abilities in the No 6 jersey and watch Piutau's elusive qualities at fullback or on the wing from the get-go. But, in the interests of long-term development, Hansen continues his policy of holding them back. They, too, must earn their first cap from the bench.
And in Francis Saili's case, he is not yet ready.
"It's tough on Francis but we've had a chat about it and he understands the reasons why. We just can't put everybody out there at once. It's a drip feed so to speak," Hansen said. "His opportunity will come."
It was notable, not for the first time either, Hansen played the father figure role yesterday. He patted Luatua on the leg and gave Piutau and friendly wink as they faced the media ahead of their test debuts. Across the Tasman, Wallabies coach Robbie Deans favours a contrasting approach, handing flanker Ben Mowen, second-five Christian Lealiifano and Israel Folau starting debuts against the British & Irish Lions.
Naturally all players want to start but it's hard to argue nurturing progress is the best method to manage nerves and enhance confidence.
"You can't just chuck them all in at once," Hansen said of his rookies. "We've got to win test matches. If you feed them in when you think they are ready invariably you get a performance from them. If you chuck them in the deep end and leave them on their own you won't because it's tough.
"Some develop very quickly and grab the concept of what it is to be an All Black. There's a lot of pressure, a lot of expectations that comes with it. Hence why very few people have done it."
In the lead-up to their debuts Hansen will be supportive, but he will sit back with a critical eye and asses how each player adjusts to the intensity against the French. Growth and learnings are regular sporting clichés but in this case they are, indeed, relevant.
"That's the whole idea really, to see whether they can cope mentally," he said. "I've got no doubt they've got the skill sets to play test rugby but there's a mental side to it too. We'll see how they cope with that."
That mental test is also poignant for Weepu, Vito and, to a lesser extent, Carter. Much like the rookies, for various reasons all three had limited or no opportunities in the first two tests.
Aaron Smith set the bar and with Tawera Kerr-Barlow on the bench Weepu will realise he needs to produce. Vito, too, has not yet nailed his chance. Luatua is a timely reminder he must soon make a statement before the production line overtakes him.
And after returning from a broken hand and water boy duties, Carter will also want to leave his mark.
"It's been good being so close to the action in the first two tests, relaying information and seeing the French and the way we are also trying to play," Carter said. "I've now got an opportunity to make a difference. It's quite different when you're out there running the show."
Which three first-fives would you have taken on the All Blacks' northern tour?