Replacements more important than ever in World Cup
New Zealand’s coach Steve Hansen says injury replacements must hit ground running
Players look on during the New Zealand All Blacks Rugby World Cup team announcement at Parliament House in Wellington. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
The role of replacement players at the rugby World Cup takes on added significance due to the tournament’s “unique rules” and the All Blacks have made sure that anyone who steps into the side due to a team mate’s injury will hit the ground running.
Coach Steve Hansen and fellow selectors Grant Fox and Ian Foster named an extended squad of 41 players before whittling down that number to 31 on Sunday for the World Cup.
All 41 got game time in five tests, with some of the 2015 new caps, notably Lima Sopoaga, Waisake Naholo, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Codie Taylor and Nepo Laulala, all proving they could make the step up to test rugby.
Naholo, Milner-Skudder and Taylor made the final World Cup squad, with Sopoaga arguably the unluckiest player not to make the cut after an impressive performance on debut against South Africa at Ellis Park.
World Cup winners Cory Jane (53 caps) and Israel Dagg (49) also missed out on selection for the tournament in England but their experience could be vital if injury strikes and players need to be replaced.
“It’s a unique tournament because it has unique rules,” Hansen added.
“If someone gets injured and they’re replaced then that’s it, they’re gone from the tournament, so it requires a lot more utility and versatility in your playing group than you would in a 31-man squad.”
Hansen built that versatility and depth over the past four seasons, giving 37 players a test debut since taking over in 2012, with 13 making the final squad for New Zealand’s bid to become the first side to win successive World Cups.
Twelve-cap lock Jeremy Thrush is one of those who could be called into the side if Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock or Luke Romano is ruled out due to injury, while 15-cap centre Ryan Crotty could fill in any midfield holes.
Both Thrush and Crotty have performed admirably for the All Blacks and Hansen said they would join the other players who missed out in meetings later this week to ensure they were prepared should they be required.
“We can’t get everybody in unfortunately (and) it’s difficult for the guys who have missed out,” Hansen said.
“But history tells us we will need to use some of them and we need them to be mentally in the right place and to turn up physically to carry on so we don’t miss a beat.”