'Sometimes when you're away, it can reignite a bit of passion for the team'
The All Blacks will again run out with a relatively inexperienced line-up when they take on Italy this weekend but with Sam Cane and Dane Coles making their starting returns, they certainly aren’t devoid of leaders.
Just four players in the starting XV – Coles, Cane, Mo’unga and McKenzie – boast more than 20 international caps to their name, while the likes of Ofa Tuungafasi, Sam Whitelock and Jordie Barrett will also bring experience off the bench.
For the majority of the side, however, playing in Europe will be a new experience, which places even more importance on the relative seniority of the two men still making their way back from injury, Coles and Cane.
While Coles was able to notch up a pair of showings at the beginning of the season for the All Blacks, Cane didn’t make his first appearance until two weeks ago when NZ thrashed USA 104-14, when he earned half an hour off the pine.
Coles also featured from the bench in that rampage but this weekend’s test poses the first opportunity for the two to start since returning from their respective injuries.
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Despite spending the better part of the year sidelined, coach Ian Foster has full confidence in his two senior players to make their mark on Saturday’s fixture.
“They both love the jersey a lot, they’ve been away. Sometimes when you’re away, it can reignite a bit of passion for the team and to be part of it, and I’ve certainly seen that with both those two coming back in,” Foster said on Friday morning. “We’ve had to bide our time, because, whilst we have got a lot of faith in both those players, it’s a significant length of time away, but they’ve trained well, enthusiastic, and running around like anything at training today, so pretty excited about seeing them play on Saturday.”
While Italy have never managed to beat the All Blacks, the New Zealand national side have suffered historic defeats to the likes of Ireland and Argentina in recent seasons and with a relatively inexperienced group of men taking the field this weekend, it will be up to Cane and Coles to lead the team in the right direction.
“If you look at the selection of this group, you can sort of see the need for those two,” Foster said. “Having those two back, whilst it’s their first start for a while after long-term injuries, we’ve got a lot of faith in them, and I think having them around a number of young players that are starting in this team is going to be critical because, test matches, there is always a lot of pressure on.
“Particularly early, we know we’re going to get asked a lot of questions on how we keep our composure through that period, so having the likes of a Dane and Sam in there, driving the standards and the communication, is going to be vital for that period.”
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The challenge for Cane will perhaps be magnified by the 29-year-old’s return to the captaincy role, which has been passed around Sam Whitelock, Aaron Smith, Ardie Savea and Brodie Retallick in his absence.
While the selectors have made it clear that Cane’s primary focus for the tour is to get himself back up to speed in the All Blacks environment and not worry about leading the team, the fact that the other captaincy options are all being rested from the starting line-up this week hands him the duties once more.
“We’ve got a lot of faith in him from a captaincy perspective,” Foster said. “I think that’s been pretty obvious over the last couple of years.
“I think in this case, I think we said we weren’t in a hurry to rush him back into the captaincy thing, we wanted him to come back in, but the way the selections worked out for this group, we really felt it was right. We wanted to give Sammy Whitelock a little bit less time [on the park]. Brodie’s shoulder, whilst it’s good, we didn’t want to use him in this game, and, Ardie, well he had a monstrous game last week and really feel he’s better having a rest, so I think the captaincy sits really easily on Sam’s shoulder. In some ways, I think it’s probably just going to sharpen his preparation for this week.”
Saturday’s match between the All Blacks and Italy kicks off at 2:00pm CET (2:00am on Sunday morning for NZ viewers).
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