Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

All Blacks: The toughest part comes on the home straight

For horse-racing enthusiast Steve Hansen, the All Blacks' final test assault this year will be like the Grand National.

His players will have to negotiate a series of obstacles on Sunday at Twickenham which will make the Old Cabbage Patch resemble something like Aintree.

They will have to overcome Becher's Brook and Canal Turn moments when every fibre of their concentration and effort will need to stay composed.

England present that sort of stumbling block for the All Blacks' ambition to end their season unbeaten. They have bowled through three matches on this tour without too many dramas, except at the judiciary.

The All Blacks have claimed 126 points, conceded 42 and doubled their rivals' tryscoring rates but there is reason to be very wary of England.

They have lost two on the bounce but not by much and are just moving into their season while the All Blacks are almost staggering to the last brush fence. Not quite, but some of the sting is evaporating from their frames.

Importantly, they have rested as much as possible this week. They have worked out in the pool, refreshed in spas, pounded away in the gyms and logged on for the team talks.

But they have reduced their time on the training paddock with the practice early today, their only serious hit-out before this international.

No one is in any doubt about the demands England will bring. They are heavy hitters; big men brought up in the unrelenting battles in premiership rugby.

This season, England have brought in a new skipper, Chris Robshaw, who has been playing on the open side.

In New Zealand he would be a blindside flanker. He has great presence, is a glowering defender and is useful in the lineout. Yet here, the style of rugby pushed him to the open side where he has not been quite so effective.

Specialists like Michael Hooper, Francois Louw and Richie McCaw have the snap and instincts from years of trading work at the breakdowns. Robshaw is learning that craft - just as he is learning how to captain a side and feeling the heat of late-game decisions which have gone against him and England.

Both areas are tough jobs and crucially, Richie McCaw has been settled in both for such a long time.

He brings a side which has knitted together in their domestic forays and continued that progress in Sydney, La Plata, Soweto, Brisbane, Edinburgh, Rome and Cardiff.

Now it is Twickenham, an immaculate ground which used to be fortress England but where they have not beaten the All Blacks since 2002.

There have been enough struggles, though, to remind this group about the hurdles England present. They may be on a losing sequence but they can inflict discomfort on sides who do not muscle up in the forward struggles.

If they get a sniff of weakness, as they did at times against the Wallabies and Springboks, they go for the jugular, usually through their forwards.

Stop those advances and claim their own ball and the All Blacks will trust their back division to open up England's defences or breach them enough to stitch together team tries.

That flowing unfettered pattern will be in the All Black sights as it has been for most of the rollicking ride this season. But they know they must shore up the framework first.

Core duties and simplicity have to be the starting mantra, with pleas about settling, working into the game and picking holes in England, pricking their skin, forcing them into mistakes.

Successful penalties or even a chat or two from McCaw to referee George Clancy can begin the drip-pressure.

All the things the All Blacks have gathered this season, all the nuances they have collected on this tour and their previous internationals have to be laid out on Sunday.

There will be strong crisp words from the staff and captain. Not too much fuss, plenty of trust and a group of men prepared to look each other in the eye and promise to deliver.

- NZ Herald

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