Tokyo - A Test against Japan which initially seemed one of
the most inconsequential of New Zealand's 2018 season has become more
significant and contentious because of head coach Steve Hansen's approach to
All Blacks selections.
Hansen has selected eight new caps in his squad for the
match at Tokyo on Saturday; the most rookies in one All Blacks squad since 1986
when the so-called "Baby Blacks" beat France while most leading
players were suspended for their part in a rebel tour to South Africa.
The 23 players selected were part of a squad of 51 picked
for New Zealand's five-match tour which began last weekend against Australia in
Yokohama and will continue with matches against England, Ireland and Italy. His
rationale for playing a second-string lineup this weekend, in a Test squeezed
into the existing schedule, is to spare his top players for tougher tests
against England and Ireland. Most of the regular All Blacks starters have
already left Japan.
Critics argue that handing out Test caps to players who
aren't considered among New Zealand's best cheapens the jersey and the All
Hansen and his backers have hit back angrily against those
claims, saying such measures are necessary in modern rugby because of the
workload international players face in a season that runsfrom February to
"We play so many Test matches now and we play so many
Super Rugby games that it is a nonsense when you hear people say that they
didn't give test caps away like this years ago," Hansen said. "Well,
they only played four or five test matches and probably six or seven provincial
"Today we are playing 14 or 15 Test matches and you
just can't ask the same people to do it all the time and expect them to play to
the level we expect them to."
Hansen's comments have been widely debated. All Blacks teams
in the era he referred to took on tours to Britain and Europe or South Africa
which comprised 18 matches and three Tests, or 24 matches and four Tests, and
which involved midweek and weekend matches. They undertook those tours, some
lasting three months, usually with only 26 players.
In past eras during the domestic season, some players played
for the All Blacks one day and their provinces the next. Those players also
played club rugby and many worked full-time.
The impression for some in New Zealand remains that Hansen
has been profligate with the All Blacks heritage and disrespectful toward
Japan, which they'll meet for only the seventh time in Tests.
Hansen has also framed the match as a selection exercise with
relevance to next year's World Cup in Japan.
"This is a young side, there is no disputing
that," Hansen said. "But, as I said, the expectation is that they go
out and play really well.
"That puts a bit of pressure on them, but you get to
see how they perform under that pressure which then gives you an opportunity to
make some sound judgments when you need to about the selections that are coming
up next year."
Japan captain Michael Leitch said the game presented a
chance for the underdogs "to take down" the World Cup champions.
"The preparation has been excellent and we hear it's a
sell-out crowd so we are really looking forward to it," he said, noting
the number of newcomers in the All Blacks lineup as a chance to put pressure on
the visiting team.
Japan's group-stage win over two-time World Cup winner South
Africa at the 2015 World Cup was widely considered one of the biggest upsets in
the tournament's history.
15 Ryohei Yamanaka, 14 Jamie Henry, 13 William Tupou, 12 Timothy Lafaele, 11 Kenki Fukuoka, 10 Yu Tamura, 9 Yutaka Nagare, 8 Hendrik Tui, 7 Shunsuke Nunomaki, 6 Michael Leitch (captain), 5 Samuela Anise, 4 Wimpie van der Walt, 3 Hiroshi Yamashita, 2 Yusuke Niwai, 1 Keita Inagaki
Substitutes: 16 Yusuki Niwai, 17 Masataka Mikami, 18 Asaeli Valu, 19 Uwe Helu, 20 Vaka Nakajima, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Rikiya Matsuda 23 Ryoto Nakamura
15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Waisake Naholo, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 8 Luke Whitelock (captain), 7 Dalton Papali'i, 6 Vaea Fifita , 5 Jackson Hemopo, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Angus Ta'avao, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Ofa Tu'ungafasi
Substitutes: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Tyrel Lomax, 19 Dillon Hunt, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Mitch Drummond, 22 Brett Cameron, 23 George Bridge