All Blacks coach Steve Hansen insisted he was “loving it” as he axed three senior players and demanded a 200 per cent improvement from his forwards in Saturday’s winner-takes-all Bledisloe Cup clash with Australia.
Hansen showed no mercy after last week’s thrashing in Sydney, dumping prop Owen Franks and wings Ben Smith and Rieko Ioane – a combined total of 213 Test caps – for the return match at Auckland’s Eden Park.
“They’re not playing so you can say they’ve been dropped,” Hansen said on Thursday, with the highly rated trio not even making the bench.
In their place is the relatively raw talent of Nepo Laulala (18 Tests), George Bridge (three) and Sevu Reece (one), as the top-ranked All Blacks bid to avoid relinquishing the annual trans-Tasman trophy for the first time since 2002.
New Zealand have long been hot favourites for a third straight title at the World Cup, starting next month in Japan, but they finished just third in the Rugby Championship after last week’s 47-26 beating in Sydney.
“Obviously, we’d like to see Ben, Owen and Rieko playing better but we’ve made the decision because we’ve got to find out more about these other people in pressure-cooker situations and you don’t get much bigger than this,” Hansen added.
“We wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t think that the guys we put in aren’t good enough to do the job on Saturday if we play well. I don’t think it’s a risk and there’s lots of reward in it.”
Australia need to win on Saturday to end their 16-year Bledisloe Cup title drought, while an All Blacks victory would level the series at 1-1 and keep the trophy in New Zealand.
‘Best challenge we could get’
“I’m loving it. This is the best challenge we could get prior to going to a World Cup,” Hansen said, after the Australians’ record victory in round one.
“We didn’t front up last week and we need to front up this week or it [the trophy] will be going back to Australia.”
The two other changes to the All Blacks’ starting team are the return of Sonny Bill Williams for injured centre Jack Goodhue, while Patrick Tuipulotou replaces suspended lock Scott Barrett.
Australia won the all-important battle up front a week ago and that is where Hansen is demanding the biggest improvement from his side, with the finger pointed directly at 110-cap lock Sam Whitelock.
Asked how big an improvement he wanted from the tight five, Hansen said: “200 per cent. I need Sam Whitelock to lead it. He’s the guy with 100 Tests, he’s the big boy in the pack, you expect those guys to lead.”
The reaction from Australia following their crushing win a week ago has been one of confidence.
Even though they haven’t won at Eden Park in 18 Tests since 1986 there have been suggestions in the Australian media that the current All Blacks are over the hill and history could be turned on its head. Hansen, however, said the situation was the same as in 2015.
That year the Wallabies won the first Bledisloe Test in Sydney 27-19 before losing 41-13 in Auckland and the All Blacks, with eight players aged over 30, went on to beat Australia in the World Cup final.