NEW Zealand have wrapped a handful of inexperienced players around a solid Test core in their selection for tomorrow’s EMC Autumn Test with Scotland, and coach Steven Hansen believes the addition of newcomers has been the key to bucking the trend of post-World Cup dips.
Having stepped up from the forwards coach role to head coach, replacing Graham Henry after the World Cup win of 2011, Hansen was acutely aware of the history of World Cup winners then falling off the pace. And if he wasn’t, he had plenty of reminders in the rugby-obsessed New Zealand.
He looks back on his first year in charge, therefore, with a degree of pleasure at the team’s ability to extend their winning run to 16 Test matches on the trot. But there remains some pain. The team stuttered in their last outing, drawing 18-18 with arch enemies the Wallabies in a poor game, and he knows that the northern hemisphere tour, with back-to-back Tests against Scotland, Italy, Wales and England has the potential to ruin the good early work.
So, he has thought long and hard about the make-up of the team for this weekend and how to play the remainder of his 32-man squad against Italy just six days later to ensure they are all sufficiently fresh for the final two games of a long season and remain unbeaten.
Asked about fears of a post-World Cup dip, he replied: “We were very conscious of that because everyone was telling us about it. Every paper we picked up told us we’d have a hangover and that has made us probably more determined.
“The first meeting I had with Rich [captain McCaw] we discussed that. The first meeting I had with the coaches when they came on board we discussed that and ways of making sure that it didn’t happen.
“We’ve introduced nine new players this season, which is just about a third of the squad, and that brings enthusiasm and excitement. We’ve got a number of players here who have never been to Scotland before and that brings enthusiasm to your touring group and excitement.
“And when an All Black side are like that they’re usually on the job and when they’re on the job they’ve got a lot of talent and, because of that talent, they’re capable of winning games.”
On the line-up to face Scotland, he explained: “The selection policy is based on two games really. We wanted to give everyone a game of rugby on the tour, give them an opportunity and then, from there, we start picking the best 23 players.
“So we looked at our leaders and distributing them through both teams. We also looked at combinations that we wanted to see go together and this [new centre pairing] was a combination that we wanted to have a look at. We felt that teaming them up with DC [Dan Carter] was a good option for us.”
The back row and centre pairing are the only areas where he has sought a new tack. Hansen has handed Tamati Ellison his first start since his debut against Italy in 2009, the versatile Otago back having come off the bench at inside and outside centre this year in convincing wins over Ireland and South Africa. He has the 12 jersey with Ben Smith, the pacy Highlanders’ full-back/wing, starting for the first time at outside centre after impressing recently off the bench. He is not dissimilar to namesake Conrad, the first-choice along with Ma’a Nonu in the midfield.
Smith also made his debut in Milan three years ago and is the 1100th All Black to Ellison’s 1099th, but, while teammates in Dunedin, the pair have rarely linked up in midfield before. The 26-year-old has nine caps but started only two so far, so theirs is an experimental pairing.
In the back row, Hurricanes flanker Victor Vito is given a rare run at No 8 between Adam Thomson and captain Richie McCaw, in his usual No 7 jersey, while 6ft 3in, 18-stone prop Wyatt William Vogels Crockett steps up for his eighth cap at the age of 29. How he and Andrew Hore perform against Geoff Cross and Ross Ford, and who gets the nudge on the other side between Owen Franks and Ryan Grant, will be a significant battle within the game.
In all, Hansen has made ten changes to the side that drew with Australia three weeks ago, but with a clear statement of intent by starting with his captain Richie McCaw, pairing veteran Weepu and Carter – whose last Test try was at Murrayfield in 2010 – and a back five in the pack and back three of Israel Dagg, Cory Jane and Julian Savea that could be considered his strongest combinations. Make no mistake, he wants to open the tour with a bang and he was happy for that to be taken as a sign of respect for the hosts.
“Clearly, Scotland have come back from their June series pretty confident,” he added, “They beat Australia, won their other two games and they’ve been working hard together as a unit. They’ve got new coaches in Scott Johnson and one or two others, so there’ll be an air of ‘We can do this’ in their camp and that’ll make them dangerous.
“I think confidence in anybody can be dangerous. They’ll be physical. They’re always physical. They’ll take us on up front and, as I said, with Scotty coaching them, they’ll look to move the ball a bit more than they do and they’ll look to attack us as a unit rather than just as individuals.”