Opinion – Here’s a game with a bit of a difference. Tonight in Tokyo, eight players will presumably become All Blacks for the first time.
The team hasn’t seen this many rookies at once in over 30 years, but it makes sense in the greater scheme of things.
Firstly, let’s address the fact that Matt Proctor, Dalton Papali’i, Tyrel Lomax, Gareth Evans, Dilon Hunt, Mitch Drummond, Brett Cameron and George Bridge are test caps that have been ‘given away’.
Short answer is that they’re not, at least when they get taken into historical context and with player welfare in mind.
This game, with all due respect to Japan, is about as close to you’re going to get to a midweek tour game without it actually being a midweek tour game. You know, those games that the All Blacks used to play by the dozen back in the old days.
The All Blacks’ focus on this tour is the next fortnight, against England and Ireland – which is why 22 of them are already in London preparing for it.
The ominous sign for the All Blacks is that it comes almost 40 years to the day that they suffered probably their most famous midweek loss. The 12-0 win by Munster stood as the only time an Irish team had beaten the All Blacks till the 2016 win by the national side, and it’s highly likely that was due in no small part to the visitors taking the game far too lightly.
But, someone has to play this game, which also doubles as a dry run for how the squad will operate in a year’s time during the World Cup. They’re staying in the hotel and training at the facilities they’ll use next year, giving them time to fine tune any problems.
It’s been a research and development mission, more than anything else. Now the research continues with an examination of who might get called up at short notice to fill a spot next year.
Over the top? Well, Steve Hansen does have the resources at his disposal to make it happen, so it somewhat depends on whether the All Blacks can bring home a third consecutive World Cup.
Fifty one players is a lot, sure, but this is a long season under a coach who midweek stated firmly that he wants to give players the rest they need to cope with test rugby.
“Is there a risk in what we are doing? Yes there is. But is the reward worth the risk? Yes it is, in our opinion,” said a typically rhetorical Hansen on Tuesday.
The price? Possibly an embarrassing slip up against Japan. Not so much a loss, but because the All Blacks and their fans treat bad performances much more harshly than understandable defeats.
He did make a decent point about things not being how they used to be, something that a lot of New Zealand rugby fans tend to forget.
“They only played four or five test matches and six or seven provincial games [in the past]. Today, we’re playing 14 or 15 test matches alone [in one year] and you just can’t ask the same people to do it all the time and play to the level we’re asking them to play at.”
Look no further than the most experienced All Black on the field tonight for proof of that. Dane Coles makes his comeback after being out for a year with a knee injury and concussion issues, and he’s not the only one to face a decent stint on the sidelines.
So there’s reason to Hansen’s methods – namely that tonight’s game is effectively killing two birds with one stone by giving the main squad (minus Coles who needs the game time) a week off, while giving him a good look at the cattle he’ll call on in an emergency.
However, Japan captain Michael Leitch did say yesterday at their captain’s run that this is now or never if Japan are to pull off a famous win.
There’ll only be 170 test caps of experience facing them at Ajinimoto Stadium tonight, so after 80 minutes it might be the most famous night in Japanese rugby – just like it was in Munster all those years ago.