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Steve Hansen wants to test the mettle of his young 'uns here this week, but it could be his most grizzled veteran who tells him the most important thing of all in Saturday's historic rugby test against Japan.
The All Blacks coach continues his regeneration of the world champions when he sends out a potential four new caps to face the Japanese in the first official test between the two countries outside of a World Cup.
Counties Manukau wing Frank Halai and Canterbury lock Dominic Bird will make their test debuts in the starting XV on Saturday (kickoff 6pm NZ time), while Wellington prop Jeffery Toomaga-Allen and Cantab loose forward Luke Whitelock will do likewise off the bench. That will bring to 21 the new caps introduced since Hansen took charge of the All Blacks last year.
The 2.06m "Big" Bird will achieve the double distinction of becoming the tallest All Black of all time, succeeding the 2.05m Mark Cooksley.
But as much as this deepening of the talent pool at the disposal of the world's No 1 team, it's the selection of the 120-cap Richie McCaw to lead at No 8 that's most notable this week.
The bulging CVs of McCaw and No 10 Dan Carter, who will earn his 98th cap when he returns from a shoulder injury, stand out like beacons as the All Blacks break up their trip to Paris with a "development" test in this rugby commercial hotbed.
In the starting XV you have to go all the way down to Ben Franks' 29 caps, Ben Smith's 22 and Wyatt Crockett's 20 for the next most experienced performers, while hooker Andrew Hore's 81 tests provide the bulk of the nous on the bench.
It's interesting that Hansen has opted to give his skip a run at No 8 to help tune him up for France in just a week's time.
The coach's motivation will be twofold. It enables him to continue the rapid education of 21-year-old Sam Cane on the openside, and it also gives him a decent look at McCaw at No 8.
In case you haven't been paying attention, the All Blacks are a little skinny behind the indomitable Kieran Read at No 8. Liam Messam can cover there, and they see potential in young Luke Whitelock down the line.
But in an era where they're two, or even three, deep at every position, it's important they develop alternatives behind Read. McCaw won't prove anything definitive against the cream-puff Japanese pack, but another peak at the skip there can't do any harm.
A free-flowing game against a Japanese side looking to play at pace should also allow McCaw to prove his skills are up to the task. No one doubts the physicality and option-taking of the great man, but some of his handling of late has been a little scratchy.
Let's see how he fares with the ball bobbling round his ankles.
McCaw's leadership, as well as that of Carter, will also be crucial ingredients in a test these All Blacks should win in a canter. This is a side chasing its place in history, and the Japanese should be nothing more than a speed bump.
Other features of the 23 to line up at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium are the in-form Beauden Barrett at fullback, the Blues pair of Charles Piutau and Halai getting to express their skills on the wing, another test in the fast-track education of Ben Smith at centre, just a second cap for Francis Saili at second five and the first test start for Tawera Kerr-Barlow at halfback.
Up front Steven Luatua gets to brandish his package of skills in his favoured No 6 spot, while the raw second-row pairing of Bird and Jeremy Thrush will lead their coach's challenge to be physical.
"It's a great opportunity for our 'less capped' players to drive the All Blacks' week and preparation," said Hansen. "The selectors have been mindful of using this to gather some more information on our younger players but also using it to provide McCaw and Carter with some game time."
Hansen expects the Japanese to be both enthusiastic and competitive.
"It will be important that we respect them and engage them in the physical aspects of the game before attempting to play too much 'razzle-dazzle' rugby.
"It's about earning the right to play. If we don't do this we can get caught up in the type of game that suits them."
Hansen also sent the team's best wishes to convalescing Japanese coach Eddie Jones who is laid low after a stroke. The chipper Aussie will be gutted to miss such a big test in the growth of his adopted country.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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