AUCKLAND (Reuters) – All Blacks coach Steve Hansen’s World Cup selections may have just got a little tougher after his side thrashed Australia 36-0 in their Bledisloe Cup clash at Eden Park on Saturday.
The All Blacks were coming off a record 47-26 loss to the Wallabies last week in Perth and former players, pundits and media across the Tasman Sea suggested the side were ageing and in turmoil five weeks out from the World Cup.
The world champions had been less than convincing in earlier Rugby Championship clashes with a 20-16 victory over Argentina before they drew 16-16 with the Springboks in Wellington.
Hansen, however, maintained the side was still building and referred to similar concerns the rugby mad public had ahead of the 2015 World Cup.
The 60-year-old, however, shook up his side for the clash at Eden Park, dropping three underperforming senior players, which included wingers Ben Smith and Rieko Ioane.
Hansen’s gamble to throw George Bridge into his first start in his fourth test and Sevu Reece into his second match to see if they could handle the white-hot pressure they can expect in a World Cup knockout match, paid off.
The pair were hungry for work, produced at least one-try saving tackle each and scored a try each and Hansen felt that his risk had been rewarded.
“You don’t put people in your team if you don’t expect them to be able to play at that level,” Hansen told reporters.
“We said during the week that we’ve seen enough of them to be able to cope with being an All Black, and what a wonderful opportunity to see if they can cope with the pressure of such a big occasion.
“They both played very well.”
Reece and Bridge were not the only players to put their hands up for World Cup selection, with lock Patrick Tuipulotu producing his best performance in the All Blacks jersey.
Tighthead prop Nepo Laulala also put pressure on test centurion Owen Franks, who was dropped along with Ioane and Smith, with a strong scrummaging performance and several bursts with the ball in open play.
Veteran midfield back Sonny Bill Williams also proved his fitness after an injury-plagued two seasons and he managed to lessen the impact of the damaging Samu Kerevi on defence.
Flyhalf Richie Mo’unga also took greater control of the game than he had in the two previous matches when he was paired with Beauden Barrett in the dual playmaker tactics, although he suffered a shoulder injury midway through the second half.
Hansen’s depth at flyhalf is at its limit with the uncapped Josh Ioane the third-choice number 10, although he said initial thoughts were that Mo’unga should be fine for the World Cup.
“He’s not that bad, doc says he’ll be fine,” Hansen said.
“We’ll know more in the morning, but doc’s pretty comfortable with where he’s at.”
(Writing by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Christian Radnedge)