The presence of the two premier All Blacks of their generation is reassuring to say the least, but make no mistake this week is very much about Steve Hansen's new era and seizing control of their destiny.
When he unveiled his largely inexperienced lineup to face Japan in tomorrow's historic test at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Hansen had no hesitation in challenging his fledgling All Blacks to indulge in a bit of "carpe diem".
After declaring it a "special day" for all four of his new caps and their families, Hansen indicated it was a contest the coaches viewed through different sorts of lenses.
"It is a great opportunity for our less capped players to drive the All Blacks' week and preparation, which will then culminate in Saturday's performance," said the coach who's having his second crack at the prefect test year.
In other words, with the pressure off, and the threat down a couple of pegs, he expects his young 'uns to front like hardened pros. And so they should, especially as they'll be led round the park by the Richie McCaw and Dan Carter leadership axis.
Hansen has picked all four of his debutants in the match squad of 23, with Counties wing Frank Halai and towering Canterbury lock Dominic Bird [about to become the tallest All Black of all time] to earn their first caps in the starting XV. Wellington prop Jeff Toomaga-Allen and Canterbury loosie Luke Whitelock will both do the same off the bench.
But beyond the debutants this is a raw squad, with the obvious exceptions of McCaw (120 tests), Carter (97) and backup hooker Andrew Hore (81). And that's how it should be when you're playing Japan in a match all about "development" - of the All Blacks' depth, their brand and the relationship between the best rugby country on the planet and its most financially resourced.
This is a test really about how the new generation fare, rather than anything the old hands manage. There's obviously some interest in having a Bo Peep at McCaw at No 8 - given the lack of gilt-edged depth behind Kieran Read - but this really is the chance for the greenhorns to log a pretty cheap week of test rugby.
So that sees Beauden Barrett given a shot at fullback, Ben Smith some more time at centre, Charles Piutau join his Blues brother on the wing, Francis Saili slot in at No 12 and Tawera Kerr-Barlow receive a long-overdue first start at halfback.
Up front there's a chance for Sam Cane to play alongside McCaw, rather than fill his boots, for Steven Luatua to splash his talents all over the canvas that is Tokyo and for Jeremy Thrush to advance his claims in a crowded lock flock.
The All Blacks will win handsomely. That's a given. But this week is about what Hansen sees from his next generation - his four debutants will bring to 21 the number of new All Blacks introduced since he took charge in 2012.
Top of that list will be Ben Smith at centre. The 27-year-old Otago sensation has made every post a winner on the right wing this season [how's 11 tries in 10 tests for ya?] but such is the way of life, he's now challenged to make himself the next best centre as well. Dunedin provided no definitive assessment - let's see what this week brings.
Who else could be playing for something big? Well, they're all just a twist of fate away from promotion, so this is a great opportunity for Barrett, Piutau, Saili, Halai, Kerr-Barlow, Cane, Luatua, Bird and Dane Coles.
"It's an opportunity to show 'righto we've got four or five leaders staying at home, we need to fill that breach, and here's your chance to step up and do that, and have a different type of experience building into a test match'," said Hansen.
These are tomorrow's men. But today's their day, and how they seize it could say a lot about their future.
All Blacks: Beauden Barrett, Charles Piutau, Ben Smith, Francis Saili, Frank Halai, Dan Carter, Tawera Kerr-Barlow; Richie McCaw (capt), Sam Cane, Steven Luatua, Dominic Bird, Jeremy Thrush, Ben Franks, Dane Coles, Wyatt Crockett. Reserves: Andrew Hore, Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, Charlie Faumuina, Brodie Retallick, Luke Whitelock, Aaron Smith, Tom Taylor, Ryan Crotty.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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