THE All Blacks will field easily the most experienced starting team in Test rugby history against France in Paris on Saturday, yet that combined tally of 853 caps is no reason for over-confidence.
Three forwards with more than 100 caps and five-eighth Dan Carter’s 99 Tests provide the nucleus of the team while, ironically, the main selection talking point is the least-capped player.
Charles Piutau will make a ninth Test appearance after illness ruled out left wing Julian Savea.
Coach Steve Hansen says Cory Jane, who will make his long-awaited return to rugby on the right wing, would have missed out to Piutau if Savea had been fit for selection such has been the form shown by the Aucklander.
Prop Owen Franks returns from a groin injury picked up against Argentina in La Plata six weeks ago.
Captain Richie McCaw spearheads the experienced brigade with 121 caps, followed by Blues front-rowers Keven Mealamu (108 Tests) and Tony Woodcock (105).
Recent history shows the most experienced teams come unstuck more often than not – including the side whose record they are about to claim.
A Springboks team brimming with 810 combined caps were upset 14-9 by Australia two years ago in Durban.
Of New Zealand’s five previous most-experienced sides, three suffered losses, including last year’s team who crashed 38-21 against England at Twickenham despite fielding the current record of 789 caps.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen isn’t one to get bogged down in statistics and says the virtue of Test-hardened players can’t be underestimated.
“It brings that experience and that understanding of what you’ve got to do on the big occasion,” Hansen said.
An increased number of Tests per year and the relentless use of reserves has seen player caps rise more quickly than in previous rugby eras.
However, 108-Test hooker Keven Mealamu believes there is a deeper explanation for this week’s remarkable milestone.
“We’ve been lucky enough to be part of an All Black legacy where you really want to stay around and be part of it,” he said.
“The boys who play for the All Blacks don’t want to leave, because it means that much now.
“To get a chance to play for the All Blacks, which is obviously the best team in the world, you want to be able to do that for as long as you can.”
Richie McCaw (capt)