Gregor Paul 's Opinion

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Gently does it the Hansen way with new caps

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By fulltime tonight, the number of new caps introduced under All Blacks coach Steve Hansen could jump to 14, with 10 of them making their respective debuts off the bench.

Easing the new boys in gently is Hansen's preferred way. During his reign, only Aaron Smith, Julian Savea, Luke Romano and Brodie Retallick have made their first All Blacks appearance as starting players.

It's not necessarily a hard and fast rule - but there's certainly truth to the idea that if possible, Hansen prefers to inject rookies at relatively safe junctures. He believes a soft launch is more likely to lead to a better long-term outcome: young players are broken into test football rather than young players being broken in two by test football.

Tonight's potential new caps will most likely be seen only if, or when, the game is under control. Steven Luatua has been in storming form with the Blues and is probably the form blindside in New Zealand.

Some coaches would have been tempted to start him tonight, but Hansen has reasoned that, first, Victor Vito is owed an opportunity to prove himself and, secondly, there is more to be gained by exposing Luatua to test football in 20-minute cameos until he has developed a degree of comfort at this level.

He knows that Luatua, Charles Piutau and Matt Todd are fit, strong and willing. What he doesn't know is their psychological strength. "I've got no doubt they've got the skill sets to play test rugby, but there's a mental side to it too and we'll see how they cope with that," he says.

Fear of players being mentally overawed has led to this progressive, and largely successful, approach to career-building. It worked well with Dane Coles who played off the bench in his first four tests last year, before being given a start at Eden Park.

Charlie Faumuina was another introduced through second-half bench appearances until he was deemed ready for the mental challenge of starting.

The old way was to throw new caps into the fray from the start and hope they would find their feet. Some did, some didn't, but the danger was that those who didn't could be needlessly mentally scarred by the ordeal.

Aaron Cruden, even after a handful of caps off the bench in 2010, was the best illustration of how much harder it is to start than come off the bench. His first outing at No 10, in Sydney, saw him fall to pieces and play his way out of the end-of-year tour party.

Conscious of that, Hansen has erred, and will most likely continue to err on the side of caution with new caps. "Some young players grab it really quickly, what it means to be an All Black," he says. "There are a lot of expectations and pressures that come with it. There is a process ... you can't just chuck them all in at once."

- NZ Herald

Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer. He has written several books on rugby including the Reign of King Henry, Black Obsession and For the Love of the Game.

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