Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Planning well ahead means no new caps

Six changes to the team in World Cup final but test side still has plenty of experience

It's an impressive show of succession planning and conviction in the type of rugby that the All Blacks want to play that they can begin a new reign as world champions without a new cap in their starting XV.

Stunning because they lost six players last year who between them had more than 700 caps.

The last time the All Blacks began a post-World Cup era they did so with three new caps on the field and an obvious sense that they were regenerating an ageing side.

This team doesn't feel like that. It shows six changes to the team that started the World Cup final at Twickenham against Australia and two of those - Sam Whitelock and Nehe Milner-Skudder - are injury-enforced.

The other four are straight swaps for the departed Richie McCaw, Daniel Carter, Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith.

This is a team - with the injury exceptions - that most followers could have picked the day after the All Blacks won the Rugby World Cup last year.

Openside flanker Sam Cane has been the heir apparent to McCaw as far back as 2012.

First five-eighths Aaron Cruden established himself, as well as he could, by the end of 2012 as Carter's natural successor.

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Ryan Crotty was first capped in 2013 and although he's not a player to ignite the imagination as such, his brand of steady-as-she-goes football was always going to be attractive in a new and inexperienced midfield.

And centre Malakai Fekitoa, who made his debut in 2014, hasn't had any genuine challengers for the No 13 jersey this year.

Seta Tamanivalu is a rugged athlete and interesting prospect, but he's a work in progress - chosen as much for the need to groom another option as for anything he's actually produced to date.

What is easy to overlook or fail to appreciate is there hasn't been much for the selectors to do in the way of agonising. They have made supremely good use of the last four years to prepare themselves for this moment.

There was a time - not that long ago either - when New Zealand rugby had no idea who would replace McCaw when the time came or if injury struck.

There wasn't an alternate No7 for the All Blacks in either 2010 or 2011.

Amazingly, they went to a World Cup without a second No7 anywhere in their mix.

It was the same with Carter - but for longer. He was, for long periods of his career, the only man who was qualified to run a test for the All Blacks.

The respective retirements of those two greats could have left the All Blacks in a deep hole this June but instead they will take on Wales with an openside who has 31 tests to his credit and has even captained the national side.

And they will start with a first-five who has played in a World Cup final, been part of the leadership group for three years and won 36 caps.

Continuity is comforting as it prevents the All Blacks from appearing vulnerable.

Teams who play the All Blacks are always desperate to find little things to encourage them - to promote in their heads that the game is winnable.

If the All Blacks had been forced to blood a host of new caps this week, Wales would have found solace in that. Made that their mental leverage and exploited it for as long and as hard as they could.

Instead, they are staring at a host of mostly familiar names and a group that collectively has more than 700 caps and the potential to reach levels that their 2015 predecessors didn't.

- NZ Herald

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