No Richie McCaw, no Dan Carter, no problem
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.
It is a selection 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 Adam Thomson's judicial hearing turned into a farce after the IRB's new Australian chief executive, Brett Gosper, tweeted the need for a review of the one-week suspension.
But IRB interference, if it turns out to be more than an idle tweet, will not detract from the All Blacks' focus on Italy.
The side named is notable, and not just because it's the biggest back-to-back overhaul since Graham Henry's controversial full rotation in 2005. Wing Julian Savea is the only player left from the side who started against Scotland.
Though Carter will be in the reserves at Stadio Olimpico, it will be the first time the All Blacks have started without Carter and McCaw since the World Cup pool match against Canada last year.
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, this is a chance to gauge the depth of the leadership he believes is now driving the side.
"We've got a group of leaders who are sharing the leadership load, it's not just Richie," Hansen said.
Of critical importance is the continuing development of Aaron Cruden and Sam Cane, the two men wearing the numbers of Carter and McCaw respectively.
"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 14 changes, Hansen's starting side have 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