All Blacks and Boks Keep Building Depth
October 17, 2013, 06:26:25
As endorsements go, they don't come much bigger. All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has placed comeback wing Cory Jane in the same category as Richie McCaw and Dan Carter.
Jane's return to the No 14 jersey is one of four changes in Hansen's starting side to face the Wallabies at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Saturday night.
Ben Smith moves from the right wing to fill Conrad Smith's vacated centre position in a well-telegraphed move, Jeremy Thrush replaces Brodie Retallick at lock and Keven Mealamu gets the nod this week in the rotational hooker position.
It is a typical Hansen team, coming on the back of arguably the All Blacks' best performance under his watch in Johannesburg.
The core of this all-conquering team remains, but there is still room for a bold selection or two as Hansen continues to build unprecedented depth in a team that has won 21 of its 23 tests in his charge.
Jane's is definitely one of them, the ebullient 43-test wing having played only a game and a half of provincial rugby this year after a long period of rehabilitation from a knee injury.
Charles Piutau was the other wing contender in the squad, and the young Aucklander under different circumstances would probably have been given a much-deserved opportunity after a series of promising cameos off the bench.
But this is hall of fame Jane we're talking about, and as Hansen made clear today, he is a special case.
"One's a 43-test veteran who before his injury was by the media's opinion - and probably my own too - one of the best wingers in the world," Hansen said.
"He hasn't lost any form while he's been injured. What he has lost is his time in the jersey.
"Charles is beginning his All Black career and I'm sure at some stage we'll be talking about him being a world-class player as well. But with Ben moving to centre, we need a similar skill set-type player, and Cory is very good with the high ball and also good at chasing our kicks and reclaiming, where Ben has been doing a great job.
"We've got the experienced guy there and we believe in him."
Asked about Jane's 120 minutes or so of rugby for the year, Hansen said Jane was a special case.
"We did the same with - what's that young fella's name? - McCaw," he said.
"We did that a couple of times with him. We've done it with Carter.
"We've got a lot of confidence in people we have in our environment, particularly the guys who have shown us they can cope mentally with the task we're asking them to do."
As has been well mulled over, Hansen is also keen to take a look at Ben Smith a spot further in - where he has played sporadically for Otago and the Highlanders, and once for the All Blacks - to help build some depth in a position Conrad Smith has owned since 2008.
"Yes, there will be times when it's new for him, but we think he's got the skill set to do the job," Hansen said.
"Saturday is the day he's going to start that and we'll see where we get to with it."
Thrush's selection is also notable, with the well-performed Retallick dropping to the bench.
Nothing more should be read into that other than as a chance to take a closer look at a player who may be auditioning for an end-of-year tour spot.
Hansen said Thrush had made "progress" in his three appearances off the bench and it was time "to find out a little more" about him. By the same token, Retallick, at just 22, has had a big year and had earned a respite.
Hansen confirmed that the Canterbury second-row pair of Luke Romano and Dominic Bird were being looked at closely with a view to their readiness for the November tour.
Bird might play if Canterbury make the NPC final, and Romano is among the injured players being assessed in the All Blacks camp over the next few days - a group that includes Wellington halback TJ Perenara.
The other notable selections saw Aaron Cruden stave off the challenge from the fast-improving Beauden Barrett to retain the No 10 jersey and Mealamu get his first start of the year as Andrew Hore drops out of the 23.
Hansen said both his No 10 contenders had been in excellent form.
"One's been doing a good job starting the game and the other's been doing a good job closing it, so we're happy with that," he said.
"Carter is getting better too and looks like he's going to be right for the Japan game."
Hore's omission in what could be his farewell season might indicate he will be heading north to round out his career.
"Andrew played very, very well against South Africa," Hansen said.
"He was selected for a reason. We wanted him to front up against Bismarck [du Plessis].
"This is a different team. They play differently, are probably a little more mobile, and that suits Kevvy's style of game better than it does Andrew's."
ALL BLACKS: Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Ben Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (c), Liam Messam, Sam Whitelock, Jeremy Thrush, Charlie Faumuina, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Dane Coles, Wyatt Crockett, Ben Franks, Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Beauden Barrett, Tom Taylor.
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