All Blacks aim to build new depth in rugby test vs Argentina

September 7, 2018
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FILE - In this Saturday, Aug. 4, 2018 file photo, Crusaders Richie Mo'unga prepare to kick a penalty goal during the Super Rugby final against the Lions in Christchurch, New Zealand. Flyhalf Richie Mo'unga will start for the first time and scrumhalf Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi could make his New Zealand debut from the bench in the Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018 Rugby Championship game against Argentina in Nelson. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — At first glance the decision of All Blacks coach Steve Hansen to start several of his second-string players, including flyhalf Richie Mo’unga, in Saturday’s Rugby Championship test against Argentina seems an act of supreme confidence.

There may even be a hint of over-confidence in the fact that, while Argentina hasn’t beaten New Zealand in 26 previous tests, the Pumas are coming off an impressive 32-19 win over South Africa in their latest match.

Hansen rarely makes substantial changes to his lineup from one test to the next and in that light, his reshuffle for Saturday’s match seems almost radical.

In reality, it reflects the caution and prudence which has been a feature of Hansen’s coaching reign and of the wider approach to selection which has seen the All Blacks remain the top-ranked team in world rugby for most of the last 15 years.

The All Blacks have won the last two World Cups and lost a handful of tests in the intervening seven years, have held the Bledisloe Cup for the past 16 years and have supplied the World Rugby Player of the Year in each of the last six years. They have achieved all of those things, a remarkable consistency of performance, through their ability to constantly regenerate strength through the induction of new talent.

“We’ve got a quality squad,” Hansen told reporters. “That allows you to then be confident to make changes. We’ve got a long season, so if we don’t play players from off the bench or from the wider group then we’re going to flatten the guys that have to play every week.

“And, No. 2, if we don’t play them, we don’t grow them.”

Hansen’s selections can at times seem erratic: he has blooded players only to discard them later, not because they didn’t measure up but because better prospects came along. That is a reflection of the abundance of talent at his disposal, which is evident in his delayed selection of Mo’unga to make his first test start.

Mo’unga has guided the Christchurch-based Crusaders to the Super Rugby title in each of the last two years, showing exceptional composure and judgement for a player now only 24 years of age.

Yet Mo’unga has had to stand in line to make his first starting appearance behind regular No. 10 Beauden Barrett — World Player of the Year in the last two years — and recent understudies Aaron Cruden and Lima Sopoaga who are now playing overseas.

He has also had to wait behind Damian McKenzie, selected on the reserves bench this week, who Hansen has made into a project player by turning him from a fullback to a flyhalf.

Mo’unga’s critics say he has had an easy ride at the Crusaders behind an almost test-strength forward pack. Yet he has still been impressive enough to mount a strong challenge to Barrett for the No. 10 jersey at the start of the international season.

Barrett handled that challenge by guiding the All Blacks to 38-13 and 40-12 wins against Australia in the first two tests of the Rugby Championship and now Mo’unga gets his chance, after one test off the bench, to show what he can do.

His selection along with that of flankers Shannon Frizell and Ardie Savea, lock Scott Barrett and recuperating winger Nehe Milner-Skudder, for his first test since October, is in no way a dismissal by Hansen of the seriousness of the Puma’s challenge.

Hansen has acknowledged the large strides Argentina has taken during coach Mario Ledesma’s two tests in charge since succeeding Daniel Hourcade.

Ledesma is “bringing new ideas, I would say, that are stimulating them,” Hansen said. “And they tell me he’s a very humorous guy so he’s obviously bringing a bit of fun with it as well. And when you get those two things together you usually get a performance.”

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