Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: History in the making

The All Blacks stand on the cusp of a new world record for winning consecutive test matches.

Steve Hansen says preparation has been the basis for the side's superiority.Photo / NZPA
Steve Hansen says preparation has been the basis for the side's superiority.Photo / NZPA

As impressive as it sounds, the relevancy of a world record of consecutive victories that the All Blacks will surely claim, is difficult to assess.

It's an arbitrary measurement of success and gives no indication in itself of a team's real worth or qualities. But what it will do, if and when the All Blacks win their 19th consecutive test (against Italy on November 17), is provide skipper Richie McCaw with tangible confirmation that his side have achieved their priority goal this year.

The skipper, having ticked a thousand boxes and more in his illustrious test career, has never been able to make peace with the notion that bad must surely follow good.

In his time, too often he'd seen a quality All Black performance followed by something less memorable: the intensity and accuracy slipping in the warm fuzzy glow that comes in the wake of a polished victory.

Back in May, as McCaw and the coaching panel surveyed the year ahead, removing those fluctuations in performance became the priority. The key to being successful, it was agreed, would be to nail the preparation every week. Get everything right in training: make sure everyone has clarity around the game plan and expectation and reach game day with no ambiguity in any minds. Logic says the performance is then more likely to come.

The All Blacks want to make defeat the product of an opponent's superiority: if they lose, they want to be sure it was because they were outplayed and not because they failed to turn up in the right mental and physical condition.

"We know we have some very talented players, but so have a lot of other teams," All Black coach Steve Hansen said after the 32-16 defeat of the Springboks.

"The difference between us and them is that we are perhaps getting our preparation right during the week and ensuring that our players have the best chance to perform on the Saturday."

So should the All Blacks notch a world record of consecutive victories in Rome, it will provide a level of satisfaction that their preparation has been at the required level every week.

They will know that there was one blip in the run when they didn't get it right - but scrambled the victory anyway. The second test against Ireland in Christchurch was a classic case of the hard work not being done beforehand. Hansen was twitchy that week - conscious that a few of his young charges were floating through their build-up work after receiving glowing reviews in the opening test in Auckland.

He withdrew some players from media obligations, fearing more praise and positive affirmation would be disastrous. It seemed extreme at the time but wise in hindsight as the intensity was not present for 75 minutes in Christchurch.

Some of those concerns may arise again this week as the victory is being viewed as a given outside the camp. An injury-ravaged Wallaby side that appears to be in awe of the All Blacks haven't been given a chance.

Yet, and McCaw and Hansen will be acutely aware of this, Brisbane was the last venue at which the All Blacks lost. The Wallabies, however much in turmoil and disarray, are still the Wallabies and eminently capable, even when down to their respective third and fourth choices in some positions.

It was 14 months ago that the All Blacks felt the pain of defeat - a loss that had more to do with their own failings than Australia's excellence. The All Blacks, by anyone's standards, had a poor week of preparation. The squad didn't arrive together: the senior men came from New Zealand where they had been resting, the remainder from South Africa where they had lost 18-5 in a game that was about giving the fringe contenders their last chance to secure places in the World Cup squad.

The World Cup squad was named on the Monday and the relief, disappointment and excitement that came with that clearly had an effect on the squad's readiness to perform on the Saturday.

Former coach Graham Henry would later claim that he felt many of the players were already thinking about the World Cup that week and not about the game in hand.
Tactically, the All Blacks were muddled on the night and even McCaw, as he has revealed in his biography, was uncharacteristically lured into poor decisions after he was kneed in the head by Quade Cooper.

"The intent of what he was trying to do pissed me off more than the execution. Shortly after that happened, I was carrying and should have passed, but I lit up and I saw Quade standing in front of me and clattered into him instead. I was disappointed in myself doing that, letting it get personal. There's no need."

Discipline, focus and attention to detail have been collectively exemplary since that last visit to Brisbane and the last two All Black performances, rather than breed complacency, should have emphasised to the younger squad members that the preparation theme is not a myth.

Assessing the relevance of 19 in a row, is pretty simple really: it will mean the All Blacks have enjoyed consistently excellent preparation and have reached the highest standards of professionalism in every facet.

- Herald on Sunday

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