ALL BLACKS COACH Steve Hansen insisted he was “loving it” as he axed three senior players and demanded a 200 percent 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 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.