Big guns rested for Italy match
No Richie McCaw, no Dan Carter, no problem.
That's the assertion of All Blacks coach Steve Hansen after making 14 changes to his starting side and installing No 8 Kieran Read as captain against Italy on Sunday.
Taranaki's Beauden Barrett will get his first start in his fourth test after being named at fullback in place of Israel Dagg.
It is a side that should have dominated the news yesterday but the players' day off proved to be one of the more action-packed of the tour.
That was largely because blindside Adam Thomson's seemingly innocuous judicial hearing turned into a farce.
He arrived home late at night to discover his day at Heathrow may have been a waste of time after the IRB's new Aussie chief executive Brett Gosper over-zealously tweeted the need for a review of the fitting one-week suspension.
IRB interfering, if it turns out to be more than an idle tweet, might change all that, but it will not detract from the All Blacks' focus on Italy and it should not overshadow a significant moment for Hansen's regime.
The side named is notable, and not just because it's the biggest back-to-back overhaul since Graham Henry's controversial full rotation 2005. Wing Julian Savea is the only player left from the side that started against Scotland.
The bigger picture is a glimpse into a future where the All Blacks will have to start a new era without their two influential talismen.
Although Carter will be in the reserves at Stadio Olimpico, it will be the first time the All Blacks have started without their two talismen since the world cup pool match against Canada last year.
Carter was to captain the side that day before pulling a groin muscle that forced him out of the tournament.
The need to plan for the future has crystalised.
Read, in his 46th test, is clearly McCaw's successor and Italy provides a perfect chance for him to stamp his mark on a side he may well be leading into a three-test series with France next June.
For Hansen it is a chance to gauge the depth of the leadership.
"We've got a group of leaders who are sharing the leadership load it's not just Richie," Hansen said.
"Though he's a marvellous, marvellous rugby player and where he leads greatest of all is in his performance.
"The understanding of the game, the understanding of the moment and understanding how we deal with that unexpected thing is a shared load.
"Kieran, I think, will step in there and do that well. He's also one of our leading players and to be the captain of any All Black team you have to be performing. He'll do that."
Of critical importance is the continuing development of Aaron Cruden and Sam Cane, the two men filling the jerseys of Carter and McCaw.
"We are saying to ourselves, ‘here we are going to play this game without two of the greatest players of all time', that in itself is a great challenge," Hansen said.
"Will they [Cruden and Cane] perform to the same level? Probably not, but you wouldn't expect them to because they aren't in the same stage of their career.
"What you would expect is the other people around them to do a little bit more and they are capable of that, so we should be fine."
Even after making 14 changes Hansen's starting side has 514 caps with another 219 on the bench and should be far too good for Italy.
Two players who will not take part are injured utility backs Ben Smith and Tamati Ellison.
Smith's fractured cheekbone is healing well and he will be available for next weekend's match against Wales but Ellison's toe injury will continue to be monitored over the next two days. Fairfax NZ
Taranaki Daily News