All Blacks coach Steve Hansen praised Dane Coles on Thursday after the inspirational hooker fought back from nearly a year on the sidelines to headline a second-string side against Japan.
Hansen said Coles, 31, would have wondered whether his career was over after he suffered a serious knee injury against France last November, needing two operations.
The World Cup-winner is the senior player in a match-day squad featuring eight new caps after last week’s thumping 37-20 win over Australia.
The All Blacks called up loose forward Dalton Papalii and midfielder Matt Proctor to a new-look XV, with six more players set to make their debuts from the bench in Tokyo on Saturday.
Luke Whitelock, who skippered the side against a France XV last year, will captain for the first time in a Test against the 2019 World Cup hosts.
Japan line up with a virtually full-strength side, although wing Lomano Lemeki has pulled out with a foot injury.
Hansen was delighted to welcome Coles back from his injury nightmare for what will be his 57th appearance in the famous black jersey.
“It’s great to have the champ back,” said Hansen. “He’s had to work really hard and he’s gone through some moments in his own head where he was probably wondering if it’s ever going to happen.
“That frustration is a killer,” he added. “It can send you places you don’t want to go. I didn’t have any doubts but I’m not in his body, I’m not feeling his frustrations. But he’s a player worth waiting for.”
Whitelock follows in the footsteps of brother Sam, who captained the team for the first time last year. He will also become the 70th player to skipper the All Blacks when he leads them out against Japan.
– Hit and Run –
“He’s a Whitelock,” smiled Hansen. “He’s a natural leader. He was brought up around the kitchen table talking and debating about rugby.
“(He) did a fantastic job leading the team against the French XV last year, and will be ably assisted by the senior players in the team.
“While it’s a young side, a relatively inexperienced group, a top performance is required. we’re giving some guys really valuable experience. It puts a little pressure on them, but you can see how they perform under that pressure.”
New Zealand have met Japan three times previously, racking up a combined 282 points, including a World Cup-record 145-17 demolition of the Brave Blossoms in 1995.
But Hansen, whose core players have left for Europe early to prepare for November Tests against England, Ireland and Italy, warned his players against taking Japan too lightly.
“They will play at a hundred miles an hour,” he said. “They don’t want a physical contest a la South Africa or Argentina — they want to hit and run. We need to be awake and not switch off.
“Is there a risk in what we’re doing? Yes,” added Hansen, whose team will be chasing a hat-trick of World Cup titles in Japan next year.
“But the reward is well worth the risk. We are giving players the opportunity to represent their country against good opposition to find out more about them.
“We get to send another group of players to acclimatise in an environment which is going to be full-on. We’re winning everywhere.”
Jordie Barrett; Nehe Milner-Skudder, Matt Proctor, Ngani Laumape, Waisake Naholo; Richie Mo’unga, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi; Luke Whitelock (capt), Dalton Papalii, Vaea Fifita; Jackson Hemopo, Patrick Tuipulotu; Angus Ta’avao, Dane Coles, Ofa Tuungafasi
Ryohei Yamanaka; Jamie Henry, William Tupou, Timothy Lafaele, Kenki Fukuoka; Yu Tamura, Yutaka Nagare; Hendrik Tui, Kazuki Himeno, Michael Leitch (capt); Samuela Anise, Wimpie van der Walt; Hiroshi Yamashita, Atsushi Sakata, Keita Inagaki
© Agence France-Presse (Additional Edits By Oisin McQueirns)