A new All Blacks era begins in earnest against Wales in Auckland on Saturday, with the rugby world taking a keen interest in how the team handles the exodus of six stalwarts following last year’s successful World Cup campaign.
In reality, coach Steve Hansen’s meticulous succession planning during the previous World Cup cycle should ensure the team barely miss a beat, despite the international retirements of the likes of Dan Carter and Richie McCaw.
Hansen named what is essentially his strongest side for the clash with Warren Gatland’s side at Eden Park, which kicks off at 21:35, with a plethora of talent groomed in the last four years now stepping out of the shadows.
Such is the depth available to Hansen, his only changes to the pack who started the World Cup final at Twickenham last October have been enforced through McCaw’s retirement and Sam Whitelock’s injured hamstring.
His only true concern could be in midfield, where the new centre pairing of Ryan Crotty and Malakai Fekitoa face the experienced Welsh combination of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies.
Davies, however, said the Welsh duo were not expecting a falloff in standards set by Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu for the best part of a decade in the All Blacks jersey.
“(Nonu) and Conrad Smith were a great partnership, probably the best I’ve seen in my time, and what they achieved was pretty special,” Davies told reporters in Auckland. “But we know that whoever steps into their jerseys now will be just as good.
“We have to make sure that when we get the ball we are accurate and we use it effectively. You don’t get many opportunities playing against the All Blacks and when they come you’ve got to take them.”
Hansen has challenged his side to begin the 2019 World Cup cycle by taking their game to a new level, which will be keenly watched by observers, though the team also have three unbeaten streaks to continue and a milestone to achieve on Saturday.
The All Blacks have not lost to Wales since 1953, at Eden Park since 1994, a run of 35 tests, or lost anywhere in New Zealand since 2009, a streak of 38 matches.
A win on Saturday would also give Hansen his 50th victory in 55 Tests since he took over as head coach following the 2011 World Cup, though he was taking nothing for granted.
“They see us as the team they want to beat,” Hansen said on Thursday. “There’s enough history being written about how long it’s been and it’s going to happen one day.
“This is a really good Welsh side and it could happen this weekend if we don’t turn up and play as well as we can and I think then we’d really see them singing in the valleys.”
Following the first test, Wales play a tour match against the Chiefs in Hamilton on Tuesday, before further matches against the All Blacks in Wellington on June 18 and Dunedin on June 25.