All Blacks ready for World Cup spotlight after 11-day break
Remember the All Blacks?
Black jerseys, black shorts, black socks, black mood on a rugby field? The Rugby World Cup holders?
It’s been easy to forget them because since they last had the spotlight — that opening weekend blockbuster against archrival South Africa — so much has happened: Poolmates Italy and Namibia have played twice, the Springboks have played a second game, Uruguay has upset Fiji and Japan has humbled Ireland, Wales and Australia thrilled, and there’s been a slew of player suspensions.
By the time New Zealand face Canada on Wednesday in Oita, it will have been 11 days since they topped South Africa 23-13 in Yokohama.
The All Blacks don’t begrudge having the equal longest break — with France — in the pool stage. They were grateful after the battering from the Springboks to decompress and head to Beppu, a hot springs resort on the southern island of Kyushu.
It didn’t take them long to get back into gear for the first of two games in five days; after Canada there’s Namibia on Sunday back in Tokyo.
With the short turnaround in mind, New Zealand made 11 changes to the starting XV. If anything, the 11-day gap has served only to build up the anticipation of a first World Cup appearance for six of the 23, and whet the appetite of the rest.
They are expected to win well. They’ve never lost to Canada in five previous meetings, three at the World Cup. And they’re meeting for the first time since the 2011 World Cup, where New Zealand won a home match 79-15. But the team is determined to impress, because they and their fans demand nothing less.
“We’ve always been demanding of ourselves when it comes to continued improvement,” coach Steve Hansen says. “By doing so, it allows us to have the right attitude, intent, and execution.
“When it comes to our preparation, it should never be about who we are playing, but how we are preparing individually and as a team, both mentally and physically. By doing this, it means you always respect your opponent and the jersey.”
Aside from winning, Hansen has a list of boxes he wants ticked off.
He’s given Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett a fifth outing together to hone their dual playmaker roles, told out-of-form wing Rieko Ioane, he of 23 tries in 26 tests, to do “the small things well and the big things will come for him,” given center Jack Goodhue a first run in six weeks following injury, and told winger Jordie Barrett to slow down.
“It’s not his confidence that he needs to get right, it’s his understanding. He wants to do everything at 100 miles an hour,” Hansen says.
Jordie, Beauden, and Scott Barrett will become the second trio of brothers to play together in the Rugby World Cup, after the Vunipola brothers for Tonga in 1995.
Captain Keiran Read, Sam Whitelock and Sonny Bill Williams are the only All Blacks from the 2011 match to repeat.
Canada also has three survivors: DTH van der Merwe, who will equal the national record of 14 World Cup appearances, center Conor Trainor, who scored two tries in the 2011 game, and prop Hubert Buydens.
The Canadians made six changes after losing to Italy 48-7 in their opener last Thursday in Fukuoka, bringing in a lot of experience.
Coach Kingsley Jones encouraged his side: “We want to go in and have a crack. We’ve got some tries in us so we’re not afraid to have a go but of course we’ve got to play in the right areas. We believe we’ve got a game that can cause New Zealand some concern.”
The All Blacks expect Canada to be primed, and wised up thanks to special adviser Graham Henry, coach of the All Blacks when they won the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
Henry’s former assistant and successor, Hansen, says, “Canada probably aren’t the strength they have been in the past, but what they are is a very proud team, a very proud nation and they’re led by a very, very good rugby player, Tyler Ardron. He’s established himself as good as anyone in Super Rugby and they’ll play with a lot of pride.
“I read this morning that one of their players thinks he’s a ‘Joe Nobody’ and can’t wait to be tackled by Kieran Read, so that tells you their attitude is they’re coming to the party.”