New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen on Thursday told his new-look All Blacks to “trust your instincts” after naming his team for Saturday’s test against Japan.
“The reason you’ve been selected as an All Black in the first place is because you’re a good rugby player,” said Hansen, who named an unprecedented eight debutants in his 23-man squad for the game at Tokyo’s Ajinomoto Stadium, the venue for the opening game of next year’s Rugby World Cup.
“Those instincts are obviously better than most back in our land, so therefore they’re in good shape. Whatever they see, trust what they think they should do and go out and do it. Don’t overthink it — enjoy it.”
Hansen has chosen a second-string lineup to face Japan one week after the All Blacks completed a Bledisloe Cup sweep over Australia in Yokohama, with 22 first-choice players leaving Tokyo for London on Thursday. New Zealand will play England, Ireland and Italy in Europe over the coming month, and Hansen acknowledged the danger of fielding a weakened team against world No. 11 Japan.
“They’ll play 100 mph and very skillfully,” he said of the Brave Blossoms, who lost 54-6 when they last played the All Blacks in 2013 in Tokyo. “They like lightning-quick ball. They don’t want a physical contest — they want to run. And at the same time they’ll do the basics well. We just need to be awake all the time.
“We have to go out and make sure that we play good rugby, and nothing is guaranteed in life. You’ve got to earn the right to win a game of footy and we’ve got to go out and do that. Is there a risk in what we are doing? Yes there is. But is the reward worth the risk? Yes it is, in our opinion.”
Japan head coach Jamie Joseph made only one change from the side that lost 31-28 to a World XV in Osaka last week when he named his team on Thursday, with winger Ryohei Yamanaka replacing the injured Lomano Lava Lemeki.
In contrast, Hansen named two uncapped players in the starting lineup — loose forward Dalton Papali’i and center Matt Proctor — with six more debutants on the bench.
“You can’t really describe it,” said the 21-year-old Papali’i. “It’s crazy. You dream all your life to be in this position. Every little kid growing up wants to be in this position, to hear your name being called up to be in the squad. My family was real happy. My mum was crying and my dad was pretty speechless.”
Also named in New Zealand’s starting lineup was hooker Dane Coles, a 56-cap World Cup-winner who has not played for the All Blacks since November 2017, after suffering a serious knee injury that required two operations.
“It’s been great to have the champ back,” said Hansen. “He’s had to work really hard. He’s been through some moments within his own head where, ‘is it ever going to happen?’ A lot of frustration. When you don’t get what you want, frustration is a killer. We’ve got him back. He’s excited. He’s jumping out of his skin.”
No. 8 Luke Whitelock will become the All Blacks’ 70th test captain, following in the footsteps of his brother Sam, who captained the team last year.
“He’s a Whitelock, so they naturally are leaders,” Hansen said of the 27-year-old, who will be winning his seventh cap. “They’ve got a good understanding of the game. They sit around the kitchen table talking and debating rugby. He’s comfortable making decisions, he’s comfortable leading men, so it’s just a natural transition.”