REPLACING Brad Thorn and Jerome Kaino was never going to be easy but All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has found two likely candidates to face Australia in Sydney on Saturday.
One-Test lock Luke Romano and former fringe selection Liam Messam on the blindside flank were the talking points after Hansen unveiled his team for the opening Bledisloe Cup Test.
Pack hardmen Thorn and Kaino are the biggest losses from last year’s World Cup-winning outfit.
Replicating their physicality is a priority for Hansen, who opted for Romano ahead of young workhorse Brodie Retallick to partner Sam Whitelock, while Messam heads off the more experienced Adam Thomson and Victor Vito.
A dominant forward effort in the 60-0 third-Test flogging of Ireland seven weeks ago was still fresh in Hansen’s mind.
“It was a tough decision but we felt that Liam’s last performance was worthy of another opportunity,” Hansen said.
“It was the sort of game we’ve wanted from him for a long time.
“In the past, we’ve seen him do two to three brilliant things and then maybe three to four silly things.
“He seems to have matured and got over that.”
Romano debuted in that Test and Hansen said his confrontational style was a key point of difference from the similar styles of Whitelock and Retallick.
“The big ball-runner (Romano) versus the two streaky and skinny guys, even though they’re not that skinny.
“That combination worked well for us in the Irish series and we want to have another look at it.”
Messam, 28, said the dizzying campaign of his Super Rugby champion Chiefs side had been behind his improvement.
A tighter, more forward-oriented approach had forced him to roll up his sleeves.
“I’ve probably brought another edge to my game this year,” he said.
“I’ve been real hard on myself off the field.
“I’ve always had that ‘not big enough’ sort of tag but I’ve just tried as hard as I can and tried to hurt people.”
Messam has played just 10 Tests since his debut in 2008 and said regular omissions – most notably from last year’s World Cup squad – had never managed to get him down.
“I’ve always taken disappointment on the chin and moved on to the next part of my life.
“Those experiences make you tougher. I’ve come out stronger as a person and a player.”