All Blacks: It's a 31-man game today, says Hansen

By Kris Shannon

All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen. Photo / Mark Mitchell
All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Among the platitudes toward the opposition and the cliches about focusing on one game at a time, there was a prickly point at the All Blacks' press sessions this week.

It arrived at the mention of Sir Clive Woodward's view that substitutions in rugby are essentially frivolous.

The World Cup-winning coach, writing in a column for the Daily Mail, argued all players should be capable of performing for the full 80 minutes and remain on the field "barring injury or if somebody is having a shocker".

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Needless to say, Steve Hansen disagreed. There was no hostility but Hansen certainly took umbrage with the idea he would ignore all but the first 15 men in his squad.

"He's allowed his opinion," Hansen said. "When did he coach? The game's changed and if he thinks the bench doesn't make a difference, then good on him. Keep telling England to do that."

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It's doubtful Stuart Lancaster would accept his predecessor's advice.

Woodward might have utilised only one replacement in normal time during the 2003 World Cup final but Hansen is right - the game has changed.

Test rugby is a war of attrition as much as a battle of abilities. Those in the run-on XV are expected to expend their entire energy reserve and, if they tire, the "impact player" Woodward so bemoaned is tasked with lifting the team to another level.

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Recent history hardly needs to be scoured to find the All Blacks using the bench to their favour. Who combined for the try that helped seal the perfect season? A couple of substitutes, of course, in Dane Coles and Ryan Crotty.

The impact of Beauden Barrett, a replacement in 16 of his 18 tests, also makes Hansen's case. Barrett is again expected to receive significant game time tonight, forming with Aaron Cruden a formidable one-two punch at first five-eighths.

"The game involves 23 people - we don't see it as 15-a-side," Hansen said. "In fact, we see it as 31, because there's 31 of us that need to get ready to play and the 23 have got to come on and make a difference."

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Liam Messam, unlucky to have been left out of the starting lineup, is one player who is set to make a difference in Hamilton, with the blueprint seeing the Chiefs man replacing Kieran Read and igniting the pack on his home field.

Read, by virtue of a lack of match fitness, is expected to play little more than a half in his return to action. And while special circumstances make his an extreme example, Read's inclusion from the kick-off is indicative of the trust Hansen places in his bench.

The rest of the reserves could also be in for increased game time, given the series is secure.

- NZ Herald

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