The battle lines have been drawn. If the All Blacks are to win their third successive World Cup they're going to do it with young, fresh, in-form backs - apparent inexperience be damned.

First-five Richie Mo'unga, 25, has played 14 tests. Second-five Anton Lienert-Brown has played 40 but he's only 25. Jack Goodhue (11 tests) is 24. George Bridge is 24 and has played only seven tests. Fellow wing Sevu Reece is only 22 and has played five.

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There is, however, a different seam of experience running through the majority of those individuals; the experience of playing for the Crusaders over the past few years – in Mo'unga's case in all three of their recent Super Rugby titles and such has been the way in which they have taken their opportunities in the black there should be little doubt about what they can deliver.

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That applies in particular to Bridge and Reece, two men thrown into the maelstrom of August's must-win Bledisloe Cup test at Eden Park, a match which effectively sealed their reputations as New Zealand's two premier wings. Another possible advantage is that they haven't been overly tarnished by failure. They play without fear and it shows.

Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo'unga during the All Blacks training in Tokyo, Japan. Rugby World Cup 2019. 17 October, 2019. NZ Herald Photograph by Mark Mitchell
Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo'unga during the All Blacks training in Tokyo, Japan. Rugby World Cup 2019. 17 October, 2019. NZ Herald Photograph by Mark Mitchell

"You look at the caps and it says inexperience but we don't feel inexperienced," Bridge said ahead of the All Blacks quarter-final against Ireland. "We're really comfortable with how we want to play as individuals and as a backline.

"We have been through some pretty big games over the last few years and that's where our experience has come from. We've been in some pretty high-pressure games. Obviously this is going to be another step up but we're pretty comfortable and confident in our abilities."

Backing youth isn't without its risks if young players aren't ready for the step up. But such has been Steve Hansen's success rate in terms of knowing when to hand out opportunities it's clear the rise of the All Blacks' backline tyros hasn't come by accident.

New Zealand's Super Rugby coaching expertise is also partly responsible – and in the case of the Crusaders, kudos has to go to Scott Robertson and his Irish assistant Ronan O'Gara.

So too is the All Black environment of allowing individuals to express themselves without fear of harsh judgment.

All Blacks, from left, Jordie Barrett, Matt Todd, Brad Weber, Ardie Savea and Sonny Bill Williams appear to be performing a dance during warm-up drills. Photo / Mark Mitchell.
All Blacks, from left, Jordie Barrett, Matt Todd, Brad Weber, Ardie Savea and Sonny Bill Williams appear to be performing a dance during warm-up drills. Photo / Mark Mitchell.

"Obviously there's pressure from outside sources but for us inside, we have such high-quality players the expectations are always going to be high because we challenge each other," midfielder Sonny Bill Williams said.

"I've been in this team in and out for 10 years. It's evolved. I don't know if I could have had the conversations I had today with a couple of the boys 10 years ago. That comes with the times; you live and you learn."

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Mo'unga said: "You can't underestimate how grateful we are. We're just so pleased to be in this environment and to get this opportunity. We just want to get out there and do our bit."

As for O'Gara, Mo'unga's answer to a question about the influence exerted by Ireland's former test first-five spoke volumes about how comfortable the youngster is in this environment ahead of the biggest game of his life.

"Like I've said in many other interviews when asked about him, he's still really hard to understand," Mo'unga said, tongue firmly in cheek, "so I take very little from our conversations."

The kids are all right.


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