Tokyo: Scott Barrett will replace Sam Cane in the backrow to add some height and bulk in the only change to New Zealand’s starting XV for Saturday’s Rugby World Cup semi-final against England.
The versatile Barrett will start on the blindside flank as the All Blacks bid to bolster the line-out against an England lineup that is strong at the set-piece.
Barrett replaced Cane in a tactical change at half-time in New Zealand’s 46-14 quarter-final win over Ireland last weekend, with Ardie Savea switching roles to play on the openside.
That’s how they’ll start on Saturday, with skipper Kieran Read recovering from calf muscle soreness and completing the backrow at No. 8.
Barrett joins his older brother, full-back Beauden, in the starting XV. Their younger brother, Jordie, is on the reserves bench.
The All Blacks topped Pool B here, opening with a 23-13 win over South Africa, and have been steadily building momentum in their bid for a third consecutive title.
“The team is exactly where we want to be, mentally and physically,” New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen said, rejecting England coach Eddie Jones’ claims that all the pressure is on New Zealand. “It would be very naive to think there is not pressure on both sides.
“We are under pressure all the time,” he said. “I think early in our history, we ran away from it, so it was chasing us down the street. These days, we’ve had to acknowledge it is there. We are expected to win every game.
“We don’t need Eddie to tell us that — what he needs to work out is what are England going to do about the pressure they’re under.”
Hansen said Cane’s move to the reserves was more related to game strategy than form, saying the flanker has been playing well.
“We’ve made some decisions around how we want to play, and we’ve made that change because of it,” Hansen said. Referring to Scott Barrett, he added: “Obvious thing, he’s a lineout forward. He’s a ball carrier ... enhances our ball-carrying ability.”
Hansen also echoed comments made by Jones last weekend about rugby now being more than 15-man starting side.
“The bench is so important in today’s game ... we always talk about 23,” Hansen said. “You need 23 to get the job done. There’s still a thought process where the best players always start. That’s not always the case. Some guys are better finishers than starters. We’re fortunate we’ve got some big hitters on the bench. They’ll get a great opportunity.”
New Zealand hasn’t lost a game at the Rugby World Cup since an upset defeat to France in 2007, and has won all three previous meetings against England at the sport’s marquee event.
“We’ve arrived at this point with vastly different experiences from previous Rugby World Cups,” Hansen said. “No doubt, those experiences will resurface throughout the week and even in the game itself.”
England’s extra-time win over Australia in the 2003 final remains the northern hemisphere’s only World Cup title. New Zealand won the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987 on home soil, won again at home in 2011 and in England in ‘15.
Expectations are high that the All Blacks will be the first team to win a third straight title. But Read said they’re thinking only of the semi-final this week.
“Of course, people are going to say we’ve failed if we don’t win, but the nature of the All Blacks and the scrutiny we have, the expectation is to win,” Read said. “England are good enough to win and that’s all we’re focusing on.”
Read missed a training session earlier in the week but said it was just precautionary.
“It’s good. It’s responded really well, so, good to go,” he said.
Scott Barrett can play as a lock or a loose forward, so has been working closer than usual with Read and Savea in recent days.
“He’s going to add something slightly different for us in the loose forwards and certainly it’s been pretty impressive what he’s been doing for us,” Read said. “He’s certainly going to be physical, he’s great in lineouts and defensively. He’s someone who, every time he’s been on the field for us, has done a great job.”
New Zealand: Beauden Barrett, Sevu Reece, Jack Goodhue, Anton Lienert-Brown, George Bridge, Richie Mo’unga, Aaron Smith” Kieran Read (captain), Ardie Savea, Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Nepo Laulala, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody. Reserves: Dane Coles, Ofa Tuungafasi, Angus Ta’avao, Patrick Tuipulotu, Sam Cane, T.J. Perenara, Sonny Bill Williams, Jordie Barrett.