As the All Blacks usher in another wave of new talent in Japan this week, they're also conscious that the landscape is a changing one for two of their most experienced performers.
Coach Steve Hansen today spoke about the importance of having skipper Richie McCaw (120 tests) and Dan Carter (97) in his otherwise inexperienced line-up to face Japan on Saturday at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium.
The veteran duo are a comforting presence for the quartet of debutants in the match 23 - wing Frank Halai and lock Dominic Bird in the starting XV, and prop Jeff Toomaga-Allen and loose forward Luke Whitelock on the bench - as they are for all their young teammates eager to make the most of their chance to log quality time in the black jersey.
"We're very fortunate we've got Ricko and Dan available through circumstances where they haven't played a lot," said Hansen today. "That's good for the occasion and also good for the younger guys to be able to feed off how they're leading the team. It's been a good week so far, we'll finish it off and then hopefully put a performance on the track we can be proud of."
But Hansen also emphasised that it's a crucial week for McCaw and Carter too, not only to get back in the groove after injury-ravaged seasons, but also to reassert themselves in what's fast becoming a changing environment for them in the All Blacks.
"There's been so much said about them and it's all been positive, then all of a sudden we can live without them," said Hansen as he reflected on the fact that his All Blacks have adjusted so well to life without their big two this season.
"That takes little bit of a mental adjustment by them. They're coping with that pretty good. This week Dan is just excited about getting back on the track, as he's had a horrific run of luck, and Ricko has got a new role (at No 8) so he's head down, bum up trying to learn that.
"We're very fortunate to have world-class players, and those two have been world-class for a long time."
They sure have. But suddenly with Sam Cane making such a good fist of the No 7 role, where he'll play again on Saturday, and with Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett (playing fullback on Saturday) both thriving with the opportunities they've had in Carter's absence, there are genuine alternatives behind the two great men.
Still, Hansen's happy to have them back and looking to build some form ahead of the big test in Paris next Sunday (NZ time).
He's also impressed with the way his mostly young squad have gone about preparing for this historic test - the first official clash against the Japanese outside of a World Cup.
"No one has jumped out and said 'I'm a leader of the future', but what they are doing is getting on and doing their work, preparing well, doing their homework and getting the clarity they need to do their role with some form of intensity.
"That's the thing that's impressed me at the moment -- people just quietly getting on and doing what's normal for an All Black."
Hansen is also expecting his two debut starters to put in big performances, the coach even challenging Halai who was sitting alongside him at the press conference table.
"He's grown his game a heck of a lot, and has improved immensely aerially," said the coach of his big right wing. "He's a shy guy and he's played shyly in the past but he's managing now to play the way he would like to and we would like him to. He's confident on the park in displaying the skills he's got."
And Bird, who officially becomes the tallest All Black ever at 2.06m, gets a chance that was cruelly denied him in June when he picked up that serious pectoral injury while playing for the Crusaders.
"He's an athlete, so not only is he tall he's co-ordinated," said Hansen. "He's also got the physical attributes we like in the core role so he can be physical, and doesn't mind hitting rucks. He's still learning the game, no doubt about that, but there's a lot of scope there to work with."
Hansen said shifting McCaw to No 8 was more about giving Cane another opportunity on the openside, though he's interested to see how the two No 7s operate in tandem, and alongside the gifted Steven Luatua.
The test also presents another chance for the ever-present Ben Smith to continue to develop his game in his new position at centre.
"Bender has been outstanding, particularly on the wing," said Hansen. "We needed to play him earlier in the year to get that confidence up and get him used to it, and I think the same thing is going to happen at centre. The more he spends there, the better he's going to get."
The All Blacks should have few problems rattling up their 11th consecutive victory of the test year. But in a week all about player development, Hansen just hopes his young faces and couple of old heads can advance their own claims in a team fast developing some serious depth.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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