All Blacks winging their way to the UK

With only 8 days until the start of the eighth edition of the Rugby World Cup, teams from all four corners are now converging on the United Kingdom with hopes held high of a chance to attain the greatest prize in Rugby. The All Blacks are winging their way to the UK as you read this article, and they will be confident that they have the players and the management who can achieve their goal of back-to-back crowns.

The All Blacks are only one team out of twenty, and while many (including myself) will tell you that the number one ranked side have a better chance than any of winning this tournament for the second event in a row – never accomplished in the history of the Cup. A bold ambition, they enter this years event as the overseas favourite, and will feel the eye’s of all the nations watching them intently. Fortunately for them, they were drawn in a Pool that has less strength than many others, with all due respect to Tonga, Georgia, Namibia and their closest opposition, Argentina.

Arriving in London just over a week prior to the opening game of the tournament; on September 18th as England host Fiji at Twickenham, the All Blacks play their first game a number of days later so when they land, they might have arrived ‘with time to spare’ but would have been better off for another game or two in the last month. A weeks preparation seems to be enough when you add to that recent training camps held in Wellington, Tauranga and in Auckland this week. That is all good, but many are wondering if all this time without a full game will be counter-productive to their chances?

ALL PRACTICE, BUT NOTHING PREPARES YOU LIKE A FULL MATCH.

We know the fact that this squads last full match was at Eden Park on August 15th, where the home side pulled out the stops and provided some evidence of that sides potential. They coasted past a Wallaby unit who were a different side to the one who had defeated the All Blacks in Sydney. In that match a week earlier, it was a tussle that truly tested the New Zealand side and looked to put a dent in the all powerful machine.

The Auckland test was great victory and a truly a seminal moment for the group. They toasted six departing players in style who were each playing their final matches on home soil. That Bledisloe Cup game was a vastly improved performance that continued a fine home record many other sides can only envy. And at home, some people say, is where this team have played their finest games. Will that ring true again at another overseas Rugby World Cup?

New Zealand broadcaster Sky Television has just recently added a ‘pop-up channel’ for its Sky Sports subscribers, with classic All Blacks matches on a 24-hour rotation. It showed replays of some truly memorable Rugby World Cup games; beginning with 1987 of course. That first tournament was almost ‘made to order’ for home fans, who as much today as they were in 1987, cheer on their favourite team. Replays of great All Black victories always bring a smile to fans faces, but it is important that we also reflect on the failures – take learnings from those efforts.

And this All Black team have taken key lessons. Captain Richie McCaw has admitted that the failed 2007 campaign saw his side enter the tournament “a little arrogant”. The unpopular rest and rotation program had given the team so much rest and too much rotation, that by the time of the famous Quarterfinal game against France at the Millennium Stadium, some players had too little game experience to fall back on. With only minutes of play for many, they failed to adapt in the way that a well practiced team can.

If they are to learn anything from experiences like that, then they can take heed of the popular selection strategy that fans all across this proud rugby nation prefer. Play our best team often, and they will react best in those heated situations. It is a common practice that many wish this team would undertake more often, yet we still must be concerned at player fitness and squad readiness for the ‘big matches’.

Coaches Steve Hansen, Ian Foster and Grant Fox are well aware of this, aware of the need to have gametime under players belts but are also mindful of the need to use all 31 players. In that way it should benefit the entire campaign. Four round-robin matches mean some players might only get to play one full game (or as much as 55 minutes, if we count substitutions) so it becomes a selection strategy, as much as a fundamental rugby question. Grant Fox summed up the philosophy as “we are playing four and one. Four pool stage games, and then if we are lucky to progress, then one qualifying game”.

From what we do know, this tournament will require all 31 players to be active members of the training ground preparations which may see a player/players used sparingly. What is important; and may bear fruit to those men in years to come, is that all opposed training is at the intensity of a match setting. Utility players like Beauden Barrett must be enthusiastic and have an input on the squad performance. That will be the key, to bring a physicality to the training field so that on-field decisions are made naturally.

If 2007, or 1991 for that matter, are to teach us anything, it is that the build-up games may not be at the same intensity as the knockout stages. The shift from games four to five are infinitely harder to achieve, so it is hard to replicate that, especially as they have not played a full International since August?

HIT THE GROUND RUNNING.

Over the last week, the All Blacks, along with all teams preparing for this quadrangular competition, have had to focus all their strengths on the practice field. The players have spent time in the gymnasium, recovery sessions and in the video room analysing  footage of opposition. The squad have spent hours on drills and conceptual plays. Sure, those have their place in all professional environments today, as much as the fitness plans, commercial exposure and ‘lay-down Business Class seats do [on which the full tour group now find themselves on, winging their way towards history]

Yes there are only 8 days until the 2015 Rugby World Cup begins, with the All Blacks winging their way to the UK from New Zealand, how will they fair?‬

For me, they must treat each game on its own merits. While Georgia and Namibia hold little in regards to a viable threat, they will play man-on-man and the unknown maybe the only concern, but I see the team using their depth in those matches. Sam Cane may begin a game, which is not to say that McCaw will be rested entirely. Having ‘Captain Fantastic’ as a Waterboy might the greatest thing next to him pulling on the shirt, and he gets a run with it too.

By the time they reach the fourth match of this tournament, they FirstIV must be on the park. Whether that indicates that side too early to the other pool favourites is ancillary – to build a core side that are reliant on the man outside of them is far more important than worrying about minutes played, or how they are reported in The Guardian sports column. All players could play 80 minutes; aerobically that must be the minimum performance standard, with substitutes only being added to improve the team performance. If they are working well, I say “keep them out there”.

While that might not happen, it is the idea that a side can build momentum that is the popular myth at World Cups. Momentum is a continual motion, so it is repetition and playing as a team that is fundamental. For these players, the more important factor is the highs and lows of sport. The time in-between games that is the crucial piece of the Rugby World Cup puzzle. Idle hands as they say, so having measures in place to assist the players to relax in the high-intensity and short windows between matches.

As a group, players and management must work together for the whole event. Motivation is key, stamina and resilience are important factors too. Facing the best in the world, who will be all winging their way into the United Kingdom just like the All Blacks, so in theory all teams must begin from the same point. In game one, you need to make a mark, and for this side it will be a tough encounter facing the Argentinians.

That will be where this side can make a statement. Where how they perform is based on what was done ‘prior’ to leaving their home base. So if the plans were put in place, and key selections (and omissions) will assist them in their cause. All the World Cup preparation has been done here in New Zealand, but now the side head across to foreign shores. They take the hopes of a nation with them, and to be fair, that is a big ask. In 2007, that might have been too big of an ask.

In 2015, after all the Internationals, after all the wins over the past three seasons and all the accomplishments players like Dan Carter and Conrad Smith have made, those experiences all lead towards this one moment. One of the most capped sides to head to any Rugby World Cup, that knowledge base will see them go far in this competition. Maybe all the way to the top, but as far as the favourites tag goes, it is going to take a good side to topple the World Champions. And if they play their cards right, then it might be a historic occasion when Richie McCaw and his troops can hold aloft the Webb Ellis Trophy once again.

 

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