Wellington, New Zealand. There will be a new coach in charge and a smattering of new faces when New Zealand plays Ireland in its first test since last year’s Rugby World Cup final.
Talk of a new era for New Zealand rugby, though, might be overstated.
New head coach Steve Hansen spent almost eight years as an assistant to World Cup-winner Graham Henry and, while he may hope eventually to place his hallmark on the All Blacks, he is unlikely to depart suddenly from the style or methods that led to Cup victory.
New Zealand’s road forward from the World Cup will likely be firmly founded on the personalities and the principals that led it to that victory on Eden Park eight months ago.
Hansen has spoken of youth and regeneration but he has named only three new caps in his side for Saturday’s match and he has weaved them into a fabric of depth an experience.
World Cup-winning captain Richie McCaw will play his 104th test, extending his record as New Zealand’s most-capped player, and Dan Carter will play his 86th test and his 71st at flyhalf, making him the most-capped All Black in that position.
They take their places among a starting lineup with a collective 527 test appearances.
Most of New Zealand’s squad was involved in some way in its World Cup squad and the newcomers — two aged 21 and one aged 22 — should fit seamlessly into that framework. Their chances come because of the absence of World Cup squad members.
Winger Julian Savea gets his debut because Cory Jane and Richard Kahui, who played in the World Cup final, are injured. Brodie Retallick takes over at lock from the ageless Brad Thorn, who is now in Ireland, and Aaron Smith replaces Piri Weepu at scrumhalf after turning his back on a career in hairdressing to become an All Black.
New Zealand will lack matchplay in their first test since Oct. 23, when they beat France 8-7 on the ground that will host Saturday’s test. But they remain formidable and they are expected to launch Hansen’s head coaching career with a win, continuing a 107-year unbeaten run against Ireland.
McCaw is aware that World Cup-winning teams often experience a letdown in the season immediately following their victory and has been determined in the time that the team has been together to ensure the All Blacks avoid that hangover.
“Most of the guys in this group have been around for a while,” he said Friday. “We’ve got to take another step up. The experiences we’ve been through last year, we’ve got to use them to our advantage.
“If we’re not trying to be better then you might as well go and do something else. I think that’s the attitude I’ve seen from these guys who are loving being back and want to be better at it. Tomorrow is the best place to start.”
McCaw also recalls that Ireland enjoyed one of its most famous wins on Eden Park, when it upset Australia in World Cup pool play last year.
“You’ve just got to respect them,” he said. “That means you prepare well, you make sure you get everything right to perform. We’ve got a lot of stuff we’ve got to get right in our own camp.
“The Irish showed during the World Cup what they can do, especially in that game against the Wallabies. They’ll have some good memories of that. I’ve always found it a good old battle against the Irish, especially here. They come out and fly into it, and they’ve got a good bunch up front.”
Ireland’s forward strength has been slightly reduced by the loss of tighthead prop Mike Ross to an injured hamstring. His replacement Declan Fitzpatrick is one of two new caps in the Ireland squad, along with winger Simon Zebo.
Center Brian O’Driscoll returns to lead the team after missing the Six Nations Championship through injury while veteran flyhalf Ronan O’Gara has been relegated to the bench, conceding the starting role to Jonathan Sexton.
Injuries and tiredness will compound Ireland’s already difficult task of beating the world champions.
“They are the best in the world bar none so we expect them to throw everything at us,” assistant coach Les Kiss said. “They have a proud history at Eden Park and I’m pretty sure they just want to go out there and don’t ruin that in any way.”
Israel Dagg, Zac Guildford, Conrad Smith, Sonny Bill Williams, Julian Savea, Dan Carter, Aaron Smith; Keiran Read, Richie McCaw (captain), Victor Vito, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Hikawera Elliot, Ben Franks, Ali Williams, Adam Thomson, Piri Weepu, Aaron Cruden, Ben Smith.
Rob Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Brian O’Driscoll (captain), Keith Earls, Simon Zebo, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray, Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien, Peter Mahony, Donnacha Ryan, Dan Touhy, Declan Fitzpatrick, Rory Best, Cian Healy. Reserves: Sean Cronin, Ronan Loughney, Donncha O’Callaghan, Kevin McLaughlin, Eoin Reddan, Ronan O’Gara, Darren Cave.