Super Rugby's opening round has exposed the near impossible task faced by New Zealand's Super Rugby coaches in limiting their top All Blacks' minutes at the start of the World Cup year.

In order for New Zealand's best players to make it to Japan in September (and through to November) in one piece, the All Blacks hierarchy have handed down appeals to the five Kiwi franchises, including not playing them in pre-season, easing them into the first three rounds of the season, not playing them for more than five consecutive games and giving them two games off (not including the two byes).

But while no top All Blacks played pre-season games, many played the full 80 minutes for their teams in round one despite a general agreement that this would not happen. The Herald understands each player was on a separate plan but that no All Black would play more than either 40 or 60 minutes in the first round and no more than 180 minutes in the first three rounds.

Of the 26 top All Blacks playing in round one for the Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes, Crusaders and Highlanders, 12, including Rieko Ioane, TJ Perenara, Ardie Savea and Scott Barrett, played the full 80 minutes. Four - Brodie Retallick, Nathan Harris, Joe Moody and Ryan Crotty - played more than 60 minutes.


The relatively high minutes played by many of the All Blacks already will almost certainly create some angst at the highest level – especially with the Crusaders hosting the Hurricanes in what will be another high-octane derby on Saturday.

The test-like intensity of New Zealand derbies are a dream scenario for rugby fans around the world but a potential nightmare for the national selectors.

In the case of Chiefs captain Retallick, the big lock was in a high-impact collision before leaving the Waikato Stadium pitch in the 66th minute in his team's narrow defeat to the Highlanders. Midfielder Sio Tomkinson was red-carded for the tackle but there might have been an extra New Zealand Rugby inquiry had Retallick, probably the best lock in the world, been injured while effectively working overtime.

The big-picture All Black plan is easy to understand but so are the difficulties the Super Rugby coaches face. Players want to play, and they want to do the right thing for their teammates, so they are often reluctant to limit their minutes or leave the field.

Chiefs captain Brodie Retallick in action against the Highlanders. Photo / Photosport
Chiefs captain Brodie Retallick in action against the Highlanders. Photo / Photosport

Making it even more problematic is the fact that some teams – most notably the Crusaders – have high numbers of All Blacks.

Head coach Scott Robertson was already missing Sam Whitelock (missing the first four rounds due to enforced rest), and Kieran Read and Codie Taylor (out for the first two rounds) for what was a narrow victory over the Blues at Eden Park, but still fielded Ryan Crotty, Richie Mo'unga, Matt Todd, Scott Barrett, Owen Franks, Joe Moody, Luke Romano, Mitchell Drummond, David Havili and George Bridge, all of whom have played at least one test.

Not all of that group of 10 were in the upper echelon last year, but the first six at least are and Robertson couldn't be expected to take them all off halfway through.

Injuries play a big part too: Crusaders and All Blacks prop Joe Moody left the Eden Park pitch after 46 minutes but quickly found himself back on the field after replacement Tim Perry broke his arm after seven minutes.


Game scenarios also play a big part. The Chiefs were leading the Highlanders in Hamilton until the final 10 minutes and lost by three points. Similarly, the Crusaders only held on to their 24-22 lead against the Blues at Eden Park because Harry Plummer missed a penalty and, likewise, the Hurricanes took a 20-19 lead against the Waratahs in Sydney only in the final six minutes and then watched as Bernard Foley missed a penalty from directly in front.

It's easy to take your best players off when you're up by 20 points or so heading into the final quarter, but it's not so straightforward when you're just behind or battling to retain your lead.