Captain Kieran Read leads New Zealand into a new era on Saturday, with the world champions shorn of their stars but intent on making an emphatic winning statement in the first Test against Wales.
In a blunt warning to the visitors, coach Steve Hansen is demanding the All Blacks improve from where they signed off in 2015 after lifting the World Cup.
Hansen wants New Zealand to avoid the slip Wales have suffered since they beat England 28-25 in the pool stage at last year’s World Cup.
They have since lost twice to England and finished second to England in the Six Nations before heading to New Zealand.
The All Blacks, in contrast, have been untested since the World Cup triumph and go into their first game of the season with Read taking over the captaincy from Richie McCaw.
McCaw, along with Dan Carter and several other senior players, stepped away from the Test arena at the end of last year.
And although their departures robbed the side of 859 Test caps, Hansen has been in no mood to dwell on the past.
“We’ve tried to make sure we’ve planned for this rollover of these great players,” he said.
“Whilst the opposition might believe that we’re vulnerable because it’s our first Test and we have lost some experienced players, we don’t have that mindset.
“So we’ll put a full stop on 2015. It’s a new start from the point of view that we must go to a higher level.”
– Strong starting side –
Hansen has named a strong starting side with his policy of developing depth between World Cup years allowing him to name a squad with a combined experience totalling 720 caps.
There is a hint of experimentation on the bench from where the uncapped Ardie Savea and Seta Tamanivalu are likely to make their debuts late in the match.
The only area where the All Blacks are seemingly inexperienced is in the midfield where Tamanivalu will be backing up Ryan Crotty and Malakai Fekitoa who step up from the background roles they previously occupied behind the now departed Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith.
And it is an area where Wales look particularly strong with the impressive pairing of Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts.
Ospreys pair Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar fill the roles of scrum-half and outside-half, with Biggar’s goal-kicking precision an added bonus.
But ball supply is likely to be a problem for Wales in Auckland despite the lift their pack will undoubtedly get from the return of injured skipper Sam Warburton and their desire to support lock Alun Wyn Jones in his 100th Test.
Seven of the eight members of the All Blacks pack played in the World Cup final, with the one omission being Sam Whitelock who has a hamstring strain but will be available later in the three-Test series.
But only four of the backs from the World Cup final squad have survived with Aaron Cruden winning the pivotal battle to replace Carter and drive the game plan from fly-half.
History also favours the All Blacks who have won their past 26 Tests against Wales dating back to 1953.
At their Eden Park fortress, the venue for Saturday’s encounter, the All Blacks have won 35 consecutive Tests since they were last beaten there by France, 23-20, 22 years ago. – Agence France-Presse