Beauden Barrett passes the ball during the All Blacks’ win over the Springboks. Photo / Photosport
By Liam Napier in London
In the shadow of one World Cup and on the eve of tackling their version, the All Blacks have reset their vision as they seek to navigate the
final test before launching their quest to reclaim the global rugby crown.
Through their 11-test unbeaten run, the All Blacks have restored their credentials to firmly reinstate their presence among the favoured World Cup contenders.
While global eyeballs will soon be transfixed by rugby’s World Cup, the New Zealanders’ arrival on northern shores barely registered a blip on the sporting radar.
As the All Blacks held their first training session of the week at the familiar Lensbury Resort in Teddington, hopeful, animated locals flocked to pubs and packed outdoor screenings across London to chant “Come on England” as their women’s football team lost their World Cup final to Spain on Sunday.
The Fifa World Cup was the only show in town, leaving deflated locals to drown their sorrows on a warm summer’s day.
Sitting outside that spotlight won’t last for the All Blacks.
This weekend the All Blacks and Springboks have sold out the 80,000-capacity Twickenham arena – no mean feat for two foreign teams – for their final pre-World Cup test. The pinnacle stage of the World Cup, and the headline tournament opener against France in Paris, then looms large for the All Blacks.
With that in mind, New Zealand forwards coach Jason Ryan offered an insight into the messaging delivered to the team behind the scenes.
The All Blacks departed the Lensbury in November after a second-half collapse in the draw with England at Twickenham cast a dark cloud over their progress since the mid-season nadir.
Vast improvements this year – in three successive statement victories over the Pumas, Springboks and Wallabies that captured two titles – put their rivals on notice.
For a team at a low ebb last year, the confidence and momentum the All Blacks have steadily built is invaluable.
Yet in a clear signal to their demanding mindset, Ryan made it clear those achievements carry no weight for the defining juncture that awaits.
“The season to date is actually irrelevant now,” Ryan said. “The Rugby Championship and Bledisloe is nothing more than a good memory. This World Cup, we’ve got to keep evolving our game. Tradition shows the team that evolves their game the most will hold the trophy up.
“There’s some good areas around our breakdown we can keep working on and defensively, we’ve made some good progress as well.”
On the face of it, the All Blacks face a delicate balancing act for the Springboks, with the procession of recent World Cup warm-up matches overshadowed by a spate of costly injuries and potential suspensions.
France lost their influential playmaker Romain Ntamack to a season-ending knee injury against Scotland. Leading French prop loosehead prop Cyrill Baille, too, is out for five weeks.
England captain Owen Farrell and No 8 Billy Vunipola face nervous waits to learn their respective fates after high tackles left them flirting with suspension. Tonga will also be without former Blues midfielder George Moala, after he copped a five-week suspension for a tip-tackle.
The All Blacks are already missing in-form blindside Shannon Frizell and lock Brodie Retallick for at least their World Cup opener against France due to injury, while Beauden Barrett is managing a niggly Achilles.
Despite the risk of suffering further setbacks against the confrontational Springboks, who emerged from their 52-16 flex against a second-string Welsh side, Ryan strongly indicated the All Blacks will largely restore their first-choice team after experimenting in the comeback victory over the Wallabies in Dunedin two weeks ago.
“It’s no juggling act, we’ll just pick our best team available,” Ryan said. “We’re looking forward to a big physical contest against the Springboks. That’s exactly what we need heading into our first game.
“You’re always going to get injuries. Your squad is always going to be tested so you’ve got to make sure you’ve got guys who can cover multiple positions, which we feel we have. There’s been a lot of cards, clearly, but the rules are pretty obvious. You’ve got to get your tackle technique right; stay under the ball and stay away from the head.
“You’ve got to have a dominant mindset. If you’re hesitant in anything you do, that’s when injuries happen. That’s how we’re going to prepare.”
The All Blacks have parked their progress to reset their sights, but the dominant mindset that’s formed the backbone of their revival clearly remains the same.