Steve Hansen’s gut instinct tells him this is the right time to give Richie Mo’unga the chance to prove he really is an international alternative to Beauden Barrett as New Zealand move menacingly towards next year’s World Cup in Japan.
That is why Mo’unga makes his debut for the All Blacks against Argentina on Saturday in Nelson while Lima Sopoaga prepares to pull on a Wasps jersey for the first time against Exeter in the English Premiership. Sopoaga recognised that his chances of launching a successful bid for more All Blacks caps was doomed with so many options open to Hansen and so he took the big bucks and headed North.
Michael Cheika’s instinct is to put Kurtley Beale at No10 for the Wallabies and drop Bernard Foley to the bench while Rassie Erasmus gives the perennially inconsistent Elton Jantjies the outside half role in that game rather than sticking with Handre Pollard. For Argentina coach Mario Ledesma the role stays with Nicolas Sanchez as he is their only proven test class option.
That is not the case with the All Blacks and so while Beauden Barrett seamlessly moves into he full back role after four tries against Australia, it is Mo’unga who is tasked with guiding a much changed All Blacks team to victory and prove that his Super rugby success with the Crusader is a launching pad for bigger things.
The harsh fact facing the other Rugby Championship teams is that they are being forced to experiment in the hope of addressing glaring weaknesses and only New Zealand are picking from strength.
“You’ve got to go with your instincts,” said Hansen when naming Mo’unga in a starting XV with eight changes “You get a feel for how the guy is travelling and then say right, let’s give it a go. There’s no doubting his playing ability.
“We’ve got a quality squad. That allows you to then be confident to make changes for the very reasons that we’ve stated. That being: 1 – 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 2 – if we don’t play them we don’t grow them. But the fact that they’re very talented athletes makes it a little easier.”
As the Rugby Championship also-rans – Australia, South Africa and Argentina – attempt to prove they have real strength in depth a year out from the World Cup, the All Blacks are expanding even further their selection options. While the European leagues have started the punishing treadmill that will eventually take the Northern Hemisphere players to Japan and revealed plans for heavy pre-tournament fixture schedules in August, the All Blacks are planning on including a group of Mitre10 players on their Autumn tour to ensure everyone gets a break.
Just like the inclusion of Mo’unga against Argentina, it will be part of a carefully prepared plan to ensure the reigning champions arrive in Japan with a fearsomely talented and experienced squad that is not running on empty. England head coach Eddie Jones joked yesterday he had 30.5 of his 31 man squad already pencilled in for Japan and that is merely wishful thinking. It is the All Blacks who are already know who the majority of their Cup squad will be and Mo’unga can help fill another seat on the flight to Japan on Saturday.