Developing combinations and versatility is weighing heavily on All Blacks coach Steve Hansen’s mind ahead of the Rugby Championship match against South Africa in Johannesburg.
The Springboks start as underdogs in the second-round showdown, despite home advantage and an expected sell-out 62,000-strong crowd on Saturday.
Last week’s 20-24 defeat to Australia in Brisbane has the South Africans on the back foot, while New Zealand looked comfortable in accounting for Argentina 39-18 in Christchurch.
The All Blacks are hunting a fourth consecutive Rugby Championship title, and a win over South Africa at Ellis Park this weekend could wrap up this year’s abbreviated competition.
Hansen has introduced a raft of changes to his starting line-up, with more than half an eye on September’s Rugby World Cup in England.
Highlanders five-eighth Lima Sopoaga and Hurricanes lock James Broadhurst will make their All Blacks Test debut, Sopoaga coming in for Daniel Carter at No.10 while Broadhurst replaces Luke Romano.
In other changes from the line-up which won last week’s match against Argentina, Dane Coles starts at hooker and Liam Messam at blindside flanker.
Aaron Smith returns at halfback, and Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith’s long-standing partnership is reprised in the midfield.
Israel Dagg again starts at fullback with Ben Smith named on the right wing.
“We have got to develop combinations and versatility, because if a player is injured during the World Cup he is out for the rest of the tournament,” Hansen said.
“Facing South Africa will be a pressure situation and there is no better place than Johannesburg to get answers about players.”
Hansen has named a hugely experienced team which boasts 320 caps in the starting backline and a further 500 in the forward pack.
“We’ve got to have an experienced side on the park to be able to compete but, at the same time, we have to be brave enough to make some selections that will allow us to go forward in future,” he said.
Although there’s every chance South Africa and New Zealand could meet in the World Cup quarter-finals, Hansen isn’t about to look too far ahead.
“This is about this contest, and what we can learn about ourselves and about South Africa. It’s about a performance that we can be proud and hopefully good enough for us to get a win.”
He said the options were there to allow for flexibility in the All Blacks’ game plan.
“You’ve got to have the ability to play a tight game, as well as a free-flowing game, then you look at the opposition and pick the way you like.”