Key ABs to play every game
Auckland - new Zealand will field close to its best lineup against Tonga in the Rugby World Cup opener this week and continue the strategy in its pool, assistant coach Steve Hansen hinted Tuesday.
It means leading All Blacks, including captain Richie McCaw and flyhalf Dan Carter, who are considered their biggest keys to a long-sought second World Cup title, won't be cotton-balled before the playoffs and may feature every week.
"There might be the same 10 or 12 (players) on a regular basis," Hansen said of the coaches' plan for Pool A.
The All Blacks play, in order, Tonga on Friday, then Japan, France and Canada.
The same three coaches from the 2007 World Cup - Graham Henry and assistants Hansen and Wayne Smith - appear keen not to repeat their mistake of four years ago when they rotated new starters after every pool game. When the team was shocked by France in the quarterfinals, the lack of game-time for the best players was pinpointed as a contributing factor to their earliest ever World Cup exit.
"We've got a group of players who are going to play a lot of the games, and there's going to be not a lot of games for some other people," Hansen said.
Inevitable injuries will have a bearing on selection, he added, and so will the need to make sure backup players are ready replacements.
"How we do that is going to be interesting," Hansen said.
For now, only two players were unavailable for selection; No 8 Kieran Read, with torn ankle ligaments, wasn't likely to be ready until at least the Canada game on October 2, while flank Adam Thomson, with an elbow injury, should be available to play Japan next week. Hansen said prop Tony Woodcock, fighting injury all year, twinged his hamstring in training, aggravating the injury he picked up a month ago.
Hansen, the forwards coach, said he rated the Tonga pack.
"A lot of them play in Europe so they're good," he said. "We've just got to respect them and expect the unexpected."
He said the All Blacks were determined to lay a marker against Tonga, and open the tournament with "something magic."
"I think it's really important, and for the tournament's sake," he said.
He recalled how John Kirwan's blazing try-scoring run through the entire Italy side in the opening game of the first World Cup in 1987 gave the tournament a big lift.
"When something magic happens, it starts the tournament well," Hansen said. "It might be Tonga that does it, hopefully it's us."