Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

All Blacks to settle on core players

All Blacks assistant coach Steve Hansen. Photo / Brett Phibbs
All Blacks assistant coach Steve Hansen. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Whether it is a matter of perspective or rewriting history will become clearer in a few weeks, but the All Blacks assistant coach Steve Hansen senses more World Cup resolve than in the ill-fated previous campaign.

The two recent blips against the Springboks and Wallabies had come as the All Blacks concentrated all their resources towards annexing the World Cup.

"You don't forget them. They hurt, especially against one of the teams who are one of your biggest rivals."

"They hurt, but as I have said, we have targeted this competition. This is the priority, and we made some decisions round the other competitions about how the team performed.

"We did not take Crusaders to Africa, and that allowed the Australian week to be disjointed, but this is the tournament we really want to perform in and everyone is excited about that.

"We have come together with a sense of 'we are here now, this is the group we have got, these are the leaders we have got, these are the young players we have got, let's build a team we can be proud of'."

It was not quite a State of the Nation address, but it was a stirring start from Hansen. He said he sensed a determined streak through the squad which was probably greater than 2007.

There was more excitement, Hansen said, because New Zealand was hosting the tournament and had a sense of needing to get the job done.

The team chosen to begin that assault will be named today, with most interest in how the back three are configured. The serious money might be on Mils Muliaina to stay at fullback, with Israel Dagg on the bench primed to get a strong half-hour of work.

The wings? Perhaps Cory Jane on one flank and Isaia Toeava on the other, as they were chosen for those duties, but Richard Kahui should still come into calculations.

The All Blacks selection philosophy would change from the last tournament, Hansen promised. There would not be the same amount of rotation.

Perhaps 10 or 12 players would continue to be the backbone of the side throughout the World Cup, he said.

Others would need to get a run in case of injury and to keep them in shape if they were needed later in the tournament, Hansen said. He and his colleagues, coach Graham Henry and Wayne Smith, had planned a tournament framework with enough flexibility they thought would cater for this World Cup.

Topics like Muliaina needing two more games to reach 100 tests were side issues. Muliaina - like captain Richie McCaw on the same number of tests - was a "we not me" player who knew the tournament was bigger than any personal markers, said Hansen.

Both men were committed to channelling their energies and emotion towards All Black success rather than personal kudos, he said. The coach said the All Blacks were committed about opening the tournament on Friday against Tonga in some style.

Something like John Kirwan's try which kickstarted the 1987 event would be great. Tonga might conjure up something too, though Hansen hoped it would be an All Black deed that marked the event.

Tonga would bring a passionate, physical approach, he said.

Hansen noted that the visitors had plenty of experienced forwards who were used to rugged confrontations in Europe, and the World Cup would increase their edge.

While the teams were centre stage, referees would also be in the spotlight. Their challenge was to get their rulings right in the areas of scrum, maul, offside line, breakdowns and foul play, that the IRB demanded, Hansen said.

The tackle area was an obvious troublespot, but if referees got that sorted the tournament would benefit immensely. "The emphasis has to be on letting the ball carrier go both by the tackler and assisted tacklers, and if they do that then we can have a game of rugby."

Untidy scrums were the domain of players, who had to work hard to keep their feet and keep the game flowing.

- NZ Herald

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