(Reuters) - New Zealand have made no secret of the fact they will use Saturday’s match against Japan as a tune-up for more rigorous encounters in Europe but for the ‘Brave Blossoms’ the game is the ultimate litmus test of their rugby development.
The All Blacks inflicted defeats of 145-17 and 83-7 in their previous two tests against Japan and few would be surprised if the world champions chalk up another massive win at a sold-out Prince Chichibunomiya Stadium in Tokyo.
Japan’s shock victory over a second-string Wales side in June, however, has raised expectations at home that they are on their way to becoming a top-10 rugby power as the nation looks forward to hosting the 2019 World Cup.
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen has named Dan Carter and Richie McCaw in his starting line-up but the bulk of his first-choice team have been directed straight to Paris to prepare for a meeting with France on November 9.
Both Carter and McCaw have been troubled by injuries this year and need playing time as they set their sights on the 2015 World Cup in England, while the remainder of Saturday’s squad will be out to prove a point.
Giant lock Dominic Bird and winger Frank Halai will make their debuts while uncapped prop Jeffery Toomaga-Allen and flanker Luke Whitelock are named on the bench.
“It gives the opportunity to put the lesser guys in a position where they have to step up and actually run the team, and we are very fortunate that McCaw and Dan are also available,” Hansen told reporters on Thursday.
“They haven’t played a lot and that’s good for the occasion and also good for younger guys to be able to feed off how they are leading the team.”
The All Blacks, unbeaten in 10 tests this year, will next play 2011 World Cup finalists France followed by matches against England and Ireland.
Saturday’s test will allow Japan to gauge their progress, added Hansen.
“It’s an opportunity to dry run all the things they have to do in 2019 ... and put a line in the sand and see where they are from a rugby point.”
Flyhalf Carter said Japan’s victory over Wales earlier this year was a “huge achievement” for the 15th ranked team in the world.
“We’ve been studying the Japanese side this week and the way they like to play and you can see that they are a team really improving,” he added.
“It’s a very professional set up they have here in Japan and I think they are reaping the benefits of the national side playing at a much higher level.”
With Japan coach Eddie Jones still in hospital recovering from a stroke, assistant Scott Wisemantel could not have been handed a tougher task for his first assignment in charge.
However, the home side have been boosted by the fitness of centre Harumichi Tatekawa, who missed training earlier this week due to a knee injury and had been a doubt for Saturday’s game.
Scrumhalf Fumiaki Tanaka plays with Super Rugby side Otago Highlanders in New Zealand and All Blacks coach Hansen said his side had the utmost respect for him.
“We’re watching out for the lot, but there is a particular person who the boys are pretty to keen play against and that is the little half back from the Highlanders,” he said.
“He has a huge amount of respect from the team and a huge amount of respect from the way he plays -- very tough, very small but he doesn’t mind taking on the big guy.”
New Zealand: 15-Beauden Barrett, 14-Charles Piutau, 13-Ben Smith, 12-Francis Saili, 11-Frank Halai, 10-Daniel Carter, 9-Tawera Kerr-Barlow; 8-Richie McCaw, 7-Sam Cane, 6-Steven Luatua, 5-Dominic Bird, 4-Jeremy Thrush, 3-Ben Franks, 2-Dane Coles, 1-Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16-Andrew Hore, 17-Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 18-Charlie Faumuina, 19-Brodie Retallick, 20-Luke Whitelock, 21-Aaron Smith, 22-Tom Taylor, 23-Ryan Crotty
Japan: 15-Ayumu Goromaru, 14-Toshiaki Hirose, 13-Male Sau, 12-Craig Wing, 11-Kenki Fukuoka, 10-Harumichi Tatekawa, 9-Fumiaki Tanaka, 8-Ryu Koliniasi Holani, 7-Michael Broadhurst, 6-Hendrik Tui, 5-Hitoshi Ono, 4-Shoji Ito, 3-Kensuke Hatakeyama, 2-Shota Horie, 1-Masataka Mikami
Replacements: 16: Yusuke Aoki, 17-Yusuke Nagae, 18-Hiroshi Yamashita, 19-Luke Thompson, 20-Takashi Kikutani, 21-Kosei Ono, 22-Yu Tamura, 23-Yoshikazu Fujita
Referee: Stuart Berry (South Africa)
Additional reporting by Shinichi Saoshiro in Tokyo; Editing by Nick Mulvenney