Hansen forced to pin faith on All Blacks rookies

TOBY ROBSON
Last updated 05:00 06/06/2013
Dane Coles
PETER MEECHAM/Fairfax NZ
BIG CHANCE: Dane Coles will earn his fifth test cap against France.

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OPINION: Steve Hansen's plans have been fast-tracked.

Hooker Dane Coles' elevation to the All Blacks starting XV fits with the rebuild, but Aaron Cruden, Wyatt Crockett and Brodie Retallick may be a week or two ahead of the schedule.

Wellington rake Coles is the big winner in Hansen's focus to the future and will earn his fifth test cap against France on Saturday in a team light on out-and-out experience, but exciting nonetheless.

Ben Smith ripped the No 14 jersey out of the selector's hands and captain Kieran Read, Luke Romano, Liam Messam and Owen Franks were automatic choices.

But there might be some angst if the French are able to apply the blow torch late into the first test of the year at Eden Park.

The All Blacks are weakened by the absence of Dan Carter (hand), Tony Woodcock (hamstring), Piri Weepu (concussion) and Sam Whitelock (finger).

Scratch beneath the surface and there is a raw feel to Hansen's 23, particularly a largely unproven bench. Ben Smith, Retallick, Romano and Cruden conjure confidence, but none have started more than eight tests.

Wing Julian Savea will be playing just his 10th test and halfback Aaron Smith his 14th, making Cruden a virtual veteran in his 21st test. In the reserves Jeremy Thrush and Ben Afeaki are on debut, but hardly out of place with Tawera Kerr-Barlow (2), Beauden Barrett (5), and Rene Ranger (3) sitting alongside them.

Take out Keven Mealamu's 102 caps and the reserves compile just 53 tests between them, and 43 of those fall between Victor Vito (20) and Ben Franks (23).

Senior backs Israel Dagg, Ma'a Nonu and Aaron Smith are all out of form. Openside Sam Cane hasn't hit his straps and has no specialist backup, while Wyatt Crockett is still to convince as a test force at scrum time four years after his debut.

It was a similar mix when France arrived in Dunedin in 2009 for the first test of the season, under-rated and unpredictable as ever.

Lock Isaac Ross was on debut that night, No 8 Messam in his third test, wing Cory Jane his fourth, while the uncapped Bryn Evans, Tanerau Latimer and Lelia Masaga sat on the bench. France won 27-22 and if Hansen is looking for a trigger to keep his side on their toes this week, dusting off the match tape wouldn't be a bad idea. Hansen has a plan to build a new core of experience over the next two years.

It will be done no harm this weekend when his mid-rangers add another test cap to their belts.

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If Cruden gets front-foot ball and hits his straps, as he did against Ireland in Hamilton a year ago, the sky's the limit. He is surrounded by talent.

But it's a fair bet Hansen would have preferred to wait a week to find out rather than field quite such an inexperienced side against France.

- The Dominion Post

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