Revamped All Blacks offer Hansen Ireland options
REACTION: New Zealand coach Steve Hansen admits his current crop might struggle to emulate Richie McCaw and Dan Carter.
However, he was given plenty of hope by a 68-10 rout of Italy a week before a crunch date with Ireland.
The All Blacks' first loss to Ireland in 111 years in Chicago last week caused ripples in the sport of rugby, but it didn't stop Hansen from making 12 changes for their year-end Test with Italy.
By the end of a one-sided thrashing that fully exposed the future workload of new Azzurri coach Conor O'Shea, Hansen was left with a potential selection headache for their return match with the Irish in Dublin on November 19.
"It bodes well for next week, we've got a lot of guys in form for selection," said Hansen.
Malaki Fekitoa, on his 22nd cap, bagged the first of his brace of tries as early as the fourth minute, with Aaron Cruden, on his first start since facing England in 2014, making the first of seven conversions to leave Conor O'Shea's hosts on the back foot early on.
Italy were never given a chance to settle, and although Tommaso Boni wowed the crowd with a well-taken try following his interception late on the hosts were well and truly outplayed.
Teenager Rieko Ioane even capped his Test debut with a battling, maiden try in the 73rd minute after he replaced veteran fullback Israel Dagg.
"We're really pleased for him," said assistant coach Ian Foster. "He's a young player, he's learning lots all the time and showed good physicality with the ball in hand."
Hansen brushed off questions about his possible selection strategy next week, but admitted the fresh faces who starred on Saturday had could give the team's established stars a run for their money.
"They played particularly well, and I'm happy with that," he added.
"But the big thing for us is that some guys who haven't played a lot of rugby for the All Blacks got the opportunity to play 80 minutes, and some guys played their first game."
McCaw and Carter's departures may appear to have left a gaping hole, but there are plenty of bodies ready to step in and take up the mantle.
Although Italy struggled with the sheer pace, intensity and skill of Hansen's 'B' team, former Harlequins coach O'Shea was quick to underlined the gulf in class.
"New Zealand is the best rugby country in the world at the moment and they were coming off a defeat to Ireland," he said.
"They just have some exceptional rugby players, and they were outstanding. Everything happened at a different pace and, in a strange way, it's the best way we could have possibly played because it's put the bar really high.
"They've scored four tries or more in their last 11 matches, so that's not bad."
Hansen is expected to ring the changes when New Zealand travel to Dublin next week looking to set the record straight, especially after last week's loss ended an impressive run of 18 consecutive test victories.
The All Blacks finish their northern tour against France in Paris a week later.
Both games will give Hansen a chance to see how his new crop of emerging All Blacks measure up to the side McCaw led to World Cup triumph in 2015.
"I'm not sure they can do better. All I know is they have the opportunity to try and do better than them, because they come after them," said Hansen.
"We've got 18 new players from [compared to] last year's World Cup squad, and obviously that's a lot but the group is just starting out and so far they've done really well.
"They tasted defeat in our last game, so it will be interesting to see how they grow from that."