A test against Japan which initially seemed one of the most inconsequential of New Zealand's 2018 season has become more significant and contentious because of head coach Steve Hansen's approach to All Blacks selections.
Hansen has selected eight new caps in his squad for the match at Tokyo on Saturday; the most rookies in one All Blacks squad since 1986 when the so-called "Baby Blacks" beat France while most leading players were suspended for their part in a rebel tour to South Africa.
The 23 players selected were part of a squad of 51 picked for New Zealand's five-match tour which began last weekend against Australia in Yokohama and will continue with matches against England, Ireland and Italy. His rationale for playing a second-string lineup this weekend, in a test squeezed into the existing schedule, is to spare his top players for tougher tests against England and Ireland. Most of the regular All Blacks starters have already left Japan.
Critics argue that handing out test caps to players who aren't considered among New Zealand's best cheapens the jersey and the All Blacks' heritage.
Hansen and his backers have hit back angrily against those claims, saying such measures are necessary in modern rugby because of the workload international players face in a season that runs from February to December.
"We play so many test matches now and we play so many Super Rugby games that it is a nonsense when you hear people say that they didn't give test caps away like this years ago," Hansen said. "Well, they only played four or five test matches and probably six or seven provincial games.
"Today we are playing 14 or 15 test matches and you just can't ask the same people to do it all the time and expect them to play to the level we expect them to."
Hansen's comments have been widely debated. All Blacks teams in the era he referred to took on tours to Britain and Europe or South Africa which comprised 18 matches and three tests, or 24 matches and four tests, and which involved midweek and weekend matches. They undertook those tours, some lasting three months, usually with only 26 players.
In past eras during the domestic season, some players played for the All Blacks one day and their provinces the next. Those players also played club rugby and many worked full-time.
The impression for some in New Zealand remains that Hansen has been profligate with the All Blacks heritage and disrespectful toward Japan, which they'll meet for only the seventh time in tests.
Hansen has also framed the match as a selection exercise with relevance to next year's World Cup in Japan.
"This is a young side, there is no disputing that," Hansen said. "But, as I said, the expectation is that they go out and play really well.
"That puts a bit of pressure on them, but you get to see how they perform under that pressure which then gives you an opportunity to make some sound judgements when you need to about the selections that are coming up next year."
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