Stick or twist? Steve Hansen faces a selection dilemma like no other during his All Blacks coaching tenure, with the fate of his two most prized trophies at stake.
Hansen and selectors Ian Foster and Grant Fox must decide if they stick with with the old guard who fell so badly short against Australia in Perth when they finalise their team for Saturday’s Bledisloe Cup decider in Auckland.
The other option is to re-energise, injecting a fresh dose of talented players who would then likely be entrusted with the big games at the World Cup too.
By promoting a new breed, such as livewire winger Sevu Reece and prop Atu Moli, Hansen may effectively draw the curtain on some accomplished careers.
The likes of prop Owen Franks and outside back Ben Smith can be classified as Test greats but if the selectors don’t think they’re cutting it – and they haven’t this year – there may be no room for sentiment, both this week and in Japan.
Foster was giving away little this week but conceded the list of issues to address out of last week’s 47-26 hiding in Perth was extensive.
“When the ‘what to do better’ list is longer than the ‘what’s going OK’ list, it adds a bit of spice,” he said.
The world champions have flattered to deceive for 12 months.
Their last truly emphatic performance came in the same fixture at Eden Park last August, although it was a dead rubber, when Beauden Barrett scorched in for four tries against Australia.
Hansen has remained loyal but his teams have laboured, most notably up front in Europe last year and then in this year’s Rugby Championship.
The team who started in Perth was New Zealand’s most experienced – and oldest – since the 2015 Rugby World Cup final, at 59 caps per starting player.
Experience was hailed as the bedrock of the All Blacks’ triumph at Twickenham – think Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock, who then bid farewell in their mid-30s.
Australia’s starting XV in Perth was their least experienced since that same final, at 34 Tests per man.
After such a high-energy performance, the Wallabies’ conundrum now is whether to reinstate some experience through the likes of David Pocock, Sekope Kepu, Bernard Foley and Will Genia.
It’s a philosophical call for both teams which could decide the fate of two Cups.