Injury forced the All Blacks into a late reshuffle yesterday as they prepared to mark their 500th Test, with coach Steve Hansen warning his side to lift their game against a rejuvenated France.
Lock Brodie Retallick was ruled out of today’s second Test in Christchurch with a hamstring strain, meaning a callup for seasoned middlerower Sam Whitelock, who had sat out the first match because of a fractured finger.
Apart from the forced change, Hansen has remained loyal to his starters in the 23-13 first-Test win in Auckland, while French mentor Philippe Saint-Andre has injected four new players.
The inclusion of flyhalf Freddie Michalak brings a 65-Test veteran into the crucial playmaker role, and the addition of Nicolas Mas, Christophe Samson and Bernard le Roux will strengthen a scrum that was under pressure a week ago.
Hansen warned his own players he wanted a noticeable lift in quality to justify their second chance.
Several players are under the spotlight, particularly fullback Israel Dagg, who is struggling to recapture his best form, while flankers Sam Cane and Liam Messam allowed France to dominate the breakdown in Auckland.
Whitelock, who has been training with the team, was not initially considered because of his fractured finger.
Although it continued to cause him some discomfort, Hansen said it was “good enough for him to play” and he never considered promoting uncapped lock Jeremy Thrush off the bench.
“No. Not when Sammy was made available. He’s a world-class lock so we wouldn’t lose the opportunity to use him if he’s fit and available. As soon as the doc said he was fit to go it was a pretty easy choice,” Hansen said.
A year ago on the same ground the All Blacks escaped with a 22-19 win over Ireland thanks to a Dan Carter drop goal in the final minute, and France have expectations of improving on that.
They historically lift their game against the All Blacks and Saint-Andre said this tour was no exception.
“We just need to improve what didn’t work last week,” he said of the desperation to win and keep the series alive, going into the third and final Test next week.
“We were not clinical [in Auckland] and I hope Michalak can bring us this, and our set-piece must improve, Saint-Andre said.
France had a superiority at the breakdown in the first Test, but struggled to contain the All Blacks’ scrum and it is here that Saint-Andre’s changes should have their most telling effect.
Mas is one of rugby’s best scrummagers and will pressure the All Blacks loosehead Wyatt Crockett. Samson is a lineout specialist and South African-born Le Roux, who is to make his Test debut, is a quality performer at the breakdown.
Saint-Andre has also made a keen positional switch in the backs, with the mercurial Maxime Medard returning to fullback and Yoann Huget moving to the wing.
Heading into their 500th Test, the All Blacks are rated one of the most successful teams in all sports with a 75.55 percent winning average. Of the 499 Tests played so far, they have won 377, drawn 18 and lost 104.