The make-up of New Zealand’s back-line has changed so drastically in such a short space of time that the players who have come into the team have joked with each other that they never thought they would be in this position at the start of the year.
That the All Blacks can afford to leave Sonny Bill Williams on the bench, as well as omit Ben Smith, Ryan Crotty and Rieko Ioane from their match-day squad entirely is another stark reminder of their embarrassment of riches.
It could be argued that Williams’ and Smith’s best days are behind them, while Ioane’s form has fallen off a cliff recently, but all four are big-game players. That is not up for debate.
Games don’t come much bigger than a World Cup quarter-final, but the All Blacks never hesitated in backing their younger crop, which sums up their mentality.
No one can ever accuse Steve Hansen of not picking players on form, which is to be admired. Many more conservative coaches would have reverted to the tried and trusted.
For all that kind of attitude is impressive, the inexperience of the incoming young guns means that it is a calculated risk to pick them.
This time last year, not many people would have predicted that with a fully-fit squad to choose from for a World Cup quarter-final, Sevu Reece (22), George Bridge (24), Richie Mo’unga (25) and Anton Lienert-Brown (24) would be included in the starting team.
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The Crusaders influence runs through the All Blacks’ back-line, which is partly why Hansen hasn’t been afraid to change it up.
Ireland, however, will see that lack of game-time together on the international stage as one of the few areas that they can target the defending champions.
Today’s game is only the third time that Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue have started together. In the only time they have been paired together against tier one opposition, back in August, Australia beat New Zealand.
There is no doubting both players’ ability, but as a combination they are largely untested. Lienert-Brown and Goodhue did get a second run-out together for the turkey-shoot against Namibia last time out, but that is hardly ideal preparation for what is to come today.
Leaving Crotty out of the team is a huge call by Hansen, particularly because the veteran has been so central to the All Blacks’ game-plan over the last few years.
Ireland must look to exploit any rustiness that Lienert-Brown and Goodhue may have from their lack of game-time in midfield.
Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose have started just six international games together, which will come as a surprise to many, but they know each other’s games inside out from Leinster.
As for the All Blacks’ wingers Reece and Bridge, like Goodhue and Mo’unga, the duo play for the Crusaders, who have won three Super Rugby titles on the bounce.
Ronan O’Gara spent the last two years working with the Christchurch-based club, but Joe Schmidt revealed this week that he hadn’t looked to tap into the former out-half’s inside knowledge.
“It’s probably not a thing I’d do really,” Schmidt explained.
“I’d have a fair bit of respect. Ronan had a position in the Crusaders so he knows a lot of players but I haven’t spoken to him.
“Just because I think it’s a little bit awkward if I’m pestering him for information when he had a loyalty to a particular team at that time.
“And because he’s moved on to La Rochelle it doesn’t mean that I don’t respect that loyalty to a team that he was previously coaching at.”
Reading between the lines, that felt like a not-so-subtle dig at Felix Jones, but only Schmidt knows if that was the case.
Although they have only recently burst on to the international scene, Reece and Bridge have showcased their explosive firepower with ball in hand.
Reece, who is a very divisive character given his chequered past, has scored four tries in his four caps, while Bridge’s record of eight in seven games is even more impressive.
On the back of lighting up Super Rugby, they have ousted Smith and Ioane, which is a remarkable achievement.
“They have certainly impressed for the last two seasons at Super (Rugby) level, in Sevu’s case, one year,” All Blacks attack coach Ian Foster said.
“I think the way they came and took their opportunities in what was a pretty significant game for us, that second Bledisloe Cup Test, just showed us that they could handle the pressure, that they would not be subdued by it. That’s probably the best word for it.
“There is a little bit of fearlessness about them. Some of it is probably because they haven’t been at a World Cup before. They probably don’t know what is at stake in some sense.
“But they are really sensible young men. They train hard, they play hard.
“When you haven’t got Ben and Rieko in the group, they are tough decisions because they are two pretty special people.
“We just felt that George and Sevu have done enough to show that there is a bit of a spark there and we’ll run with that.”
That “fearlessness” can also result in naivety, particularly in defence.
There is no doubt that Ireland will target the rookie wingers, especially Reece who only has one Super Rugby season under his belt.
Ireland moved away from box-kicking during pre-season, but one suspects that Conor Murray will be busy peppering balls down the throats of Reece and Bridge.
“They are relatively inexperienced, but two top-class athletes and they’ve shown that throughout the last two seasons,” Murray said of the lightning-quick wingers.
“They’ve forced their way into the team. They had a pretty settled back-line but they’ve been so good that they’ve forced the coach’s hand to be picked and they’ve performed pretty well, especially Sevu Reece, he’s been pretty outstanding.
“So, you could say inexperience, but to get into an All Blacks team you’ve got to be pretty good.”
Four of Reece’s five caps have been won with Bridge on the opposite wing. The pair have already lit up this World Cup but South Africa showed how they can be got at.
Ireland have the tools to make life difficult for New Zealand’s new-look back-line and if they can plant that seed of doubt early on, it could have a major bearing on the result.
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