They are not quite the baby blacks but the team Beauden Barrett captains for the first time this week has a distinct next generation feel about it.
This match against the Barbarians at Twickenham on Sunday (NZT) could well be labelled opportunity day. Glance through the All Blacks starting team and every player, other than Barrett and possibly Waisake Naholo, are not considered incumbents.
That stretches to the bench where the All Blacks have, as expected, included all three rookies – Asafo Aumua, Matt Duffie and Tim Perry.
This match, the first of their five-match northern tour, was always going to see the All Blacks give fringe and new players chances.
“It’s pretty rushed for them isn’t it? Preferably you’d want to give them a couple of weeks before you even looked like putting them in but this Baabaas game suits having those boys in the side,” All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said of his rookies who have only spent one week with the team. “It’s too much to ask them to come straight in and play so we’ll put them on when things are right.”
From David Havili’s maiden start at fullback to Ngani Laumape’s anticipated crack at second five-eighth to Jerome Kaino’s long awaited return, talking points abound.
But among the raft of changes, Barrett’s selection stands out. Captaining the All Blacks in Kieran Read’s absence is a special honour in his 60th test. Barrett is sure to bring spark and guidance to an otherwise green backline that also features Seta Tamanivalu’s first test start on the left wing.
There was a school of thought this match offered a repeat chance for Lima Sopoaga to learn and grow after his disappointing outing in the last Brisbane defeat. But with Barrett sitting out that match with concussion, having come off in the first half in Cape Town, the All Blacks feel their star playmaker needs game-time before the French test in Paris next week.
“We need a leader and it’s a good opportunity for him to lead,” Hansen said. “He needs a game – he hasn’t played for four or five weeks so we might as well start him and then we know where he is at.”
Outside TJ Perenara and Barrett there is intrigue in the young, attacking-minded midfield duo of Laumape and Anton Lienert-Brown. Injuries haven’t helped, but the All Blacks midfield is yet to fully gel this year. While Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty will return next week, this is still a chance to apply pressure.
In the loose forwards Ardie Savea gets the nod with Matt Todd given another week to get his groin right and Sam Cane included as cover, probably for openside and No 8. Savea’s presence sets up a clash with brother Julian who will run out for the Baabaas. Vaea Fifita wears the No 6 jersey for the third time this year, pushing Kaino to the boot of the scrum.
Hansen made it clear what he expects from Kaino after the 81 test veteran missed the last seven tests.
“Just want to see Jerome. He’s a physical player; good ball runner. He hasn’t had a lot of rugby so the gas tank will be running on empty pretty early I’d suggest but as I said to him ‘I don’t care if you only play for 30 minutes just give me everything you’ve got’ then we can build on there.”
The onus will be on Luke Romano to run the lineouts, and heat has been applied to Scott Barrett to raise his game with Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock absent.
“There’s been an opportunity there for a few weeks we’re just wanting on someone to take it.”
With 13 Kiwis in the Baabaas squad, Hansen believes they will genuinely challenge.
“This will be a tough game I’m picking. It’s like a New Zealand trial so everyone will have plenty to say about it. We know the quality of the people that are in the Baabaas. It’ll give us a good gauge of where these boys are at.”
All Blacks team:
David Havili, Waisake Naholo, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ngani Laumape, Seta Tamanivalu, Beauden Barrett (c), TJ Perenara, Jerome Kaino, Ardie Savea, Vaea Fifita, Scott Barrett, Luke Romano, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Nathan Harris, Kane Hames
Reserves: Asafo Aumua, Tim Perry, Jeff Toomaga-Allen, Patrick Tuipulotu, Sam Cane, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Lima Sopoaga, Matt Duffie