Richie McCaw will lead New Zealand when it takes on Japan on Saturday, head coach Steve Hansen announced Thursday — although the most capped All Black in history will be playing at No. 8 rather than in his more accustomed No. 7 jersey.
McCaw, who will be winning his 121st cap, is included alongside flyhalf Dan Carter (97 tests) as both look to get some game time ahead of the European leg of the All Blacks’ tour following time out with injury.
The initial idea, when the game was announced, was for both players to join other senior members of the squad in flying out to Paris to prepare for the game against France on Nov. 9. But the pair’s lack of playing time in recent weeks has forced Hansen to change his plans.
“We are very fortunate to have Richie and Dan available through circumstances,” Hansen said. “Dan is very excited about being back on the track after a horrific run of luck and Richie is in a new role, but we have seen him play there before and are comfortable he could go there in a big test.”
McCaw and Carter aside, however, Hansen named a very inexperienced starting XV for the game at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground with none of the other 13 starters having played more than 30 tests.
Lock Dominic Bird, who at 206 cm will become the tallest player ever to don the famous black jersey, and wing Frank Halai will win their first caps as will prop Jeffery Toomaga-Allen and flanker Luke Whitelock if they come off the bench, as the world champions look to the future.
“The whole idea of this game when it was mooted by the union was that it would give us the opportunity to put the lesser guys in a position to step up and run the team,” Hansen explained.
Scrumhalf Tawera Kerr Barlow, whose previous 10 tests have all been off the bench, had a slightly different take on the lineup.
“I am the meat between the sandwich,” he said referring to his role as the link between McCaw and Carter.
Saturday’s game will be the third official test between the two countries and the first outside a Rugby World Cup. Despite the one-sided nature of previous games, Hansen said he was expecting a tough day at the office, particularly in light of the recent illness suffered by Japan head coach Eddie Jones.
“Teams tend to rise when a member is ill and I think Japan will have an extra bounce in their step and will play for (Eddie),” he said. “We are expecting Japan to be very competitive and it will be important that we respect them and engage them in the physical aspects of the game before attempting to play too much razzle-dazzle type rugby.”
When asked what winning margin he would be happy with, Hansen responded: “It’s not about the margin of victory. It’s about looking at our own performance and if we have put in a performance that we can be proud of as a team both individually and collectively then the margin will be irrelevant.”
Japan will look to build on its stunning win over Wales in June by hoping to pass the test of all tests on Saturday — the All Blacks.
“The Wales game was basically the cumulative of all the games we played before,” acting head coach Steve Wisemantel said Thursday, after revealing Japan’s XV in place of Eddie Jones, who is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke this month.
“The big thing about the Wales game was that there was belief we could beat teams that were ranked higher than us,” he said of the 23-8 victory on June 15 at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground.
“That’s the biggest thing — being able to play teams who are above us in the IRB rankings, and being able to believe we can win.”
Jones, who was emailing team general manager Kensuke Iwabuchi every two minutes before going to bed the previous night, underlined that belief in a text message to Kyodo News.
“The All Blacks team is beatable, but the first 20 minutes will be crucial,” he said.
Japan will be led by captain Toshiaki Hirose in its first meeting with New Zealand since being hammered 83-7 at the 2011 Rugby World Cup by the eventual champions.
The Japanese side that will line up against the world’s top-ranked team — which is on a 10-game winning streak — will feature Ryu Koliniasi Holani at No. 8, over World Cup captain Takashi Kikutani.
Super Rugby players Fumiaki Tanaka (Highlanders) and Shota Horie (Melbourne Rebels) are in at scrumhalf and hooker, respectively, with Kubota Spears flyhalf Harumichi Tatekawa set to return from injury and run the show.
Veteran Toshiba Brave Lupus lock Hitoshi Ono, who is set to win a team-high 74th cap, will partner Shoji Ito of Kobe Kobelco Steelers, with the New Zealand-born pair of Michael Broadhurst and Hendrik Tui on the flanks.
By going up against the gold standard of international rugby, Wisemantel said Jones’ Japan will find out where it is halfway through the buildup to the 2015 World Cup in England.
“It’s very exciting to play the best team in the world,” he said. “We really want to see how good we are. We will attack New Zealand with and without the ball, and we’ll aim to put as much pressure on them as we can.
“We’re certainly not going out there with a defeatist attitude.”
Hirose, who has been receiving instructions from Jones via email, said he is relishing the challenge of taking on the likes of centurion Richie McCaw and flyhalf Dan Carter.
“I’m very excited for the game,” Hirose said. “We couldn’t have put in more work for this test, and I can’t wait.”
Kobe’s Australian-born center Craig Wing said he never dreamed of playing the All Blacks in a Brave Blossoms shirt, calling it the “highlight” of his career.
“When Eddie presented me with the chance at the end of last year to play for Japan, I was so excited and pretty much said yes straightaway,” said Wing, who is due to make his sixth appearance for Japan.
“But I had no idea that one day I would come up against the best team in the world here in Japan. For me in particular, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
“Definitely the highlight of my rugby career,” he added. “It’s such a memorable moment taking the whole career in part, considering the circumstances, where we are and how it’s all come about.
“There’s no way I could have foreseen myself in this position two, three years ago.”