Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Pressure can crack even the most talented

With the team to play Italy stacked with younger, inexperienced players, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen will hold a higher ratio of hope to expectation at Stadio Olimpico.

In his 12-year association with the All Blacks, he's learned to never underestimate the ability of test rugby to expose a player's mental frailty or lack of self-belief. He's seen a few crack over the years - good players who earned their selection, then couldn't adapt to the test arena.

Plenty can be done to minimise the risk, but there is still an element of the unknown - there is still no certainty that players are ready to cope with being an All Black.

"The biggest thing is the pressure," says Hansen. "It is not like being in a Super Rugby franchise. The demands are greater. The scrutiny is definitely greater and whether you are a staff member or a player, you walk in to it and you can just feel it. It is there and, for some people, it can be overwhelming.

"It challenges you to really understand whether you are good enough to be there. They have got to be confident and time in the environment helps them with their confidence.

"We try to make it as easy as possible for them but, at the same time, there is always that scrutiny. It is there all the time - it is 24/7 - and it is hard work for some."

He says this ahead of a test that will see an unusually high number of inexperienced players take the field. Some are having only their second or third crack at a test match and there is no question about whether they are good enough - the unknown is whether they can stay in the right head space to show they are good enough.

That's the question that applies to most of the 23 involved in Rome.

Can Codie Taylor, for instance, nail his core roles at hooker and keep them accurate for 60 minutes? Will Patrick Tuipulotu be more influential and dominant than he was in Chicago?

For Steven Luatua and Elliot Dixon, there is the request to show their physicality.

Tawera Kerr-Barlow knows he has a bit to do to catch the other two halfbacks in the squad and Damian McKenzie will want to show he can look after the ball and respect the greater intensity of test rugby.

For All Blacks first-timers Rieko Ioane and Liam Coltman, it is the biggest match of their respective careers and they will just want to get on the park and not fall apart.

"Once we get them here it is about watching them, understanding them, getting to know them to see how they are coping," Hansen says.

"It is pretty obvious - for me anyway - when they are coping and it is obvious when they are not. You give them a little bit of a taste if you think they are ready and see how they go.

"I guess it is all about following your own instincts and being aware of what your athlete is capable of.

"And the only way you can do that is by getting to know them and watching them at training and around the environment."

- NZ Herald

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