Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Experienced core likely to get nod for first tests of season

Liam Messam. Photo / Richard Robinson
Liam Messam. Photo / Richard Robinson

England are going to know what's hit them in June.

It will be an All Blacks side playing much the same as they did last year, except they hope with better timing, sharper angles and more cohesion.

2014 isn't going to be the year of revolution for the All Blacks. No need. They have built the various strands of their game - that's what they did in 2012 and 2013. They feel comfortable they can pose what they call a triple threat - that they can pass, run and kick.

The options are there for them to play any side in any conditions. What they want to do against England is get better at executing those options. Despite winning all 14 tests last year, the All Blacks didn't sign off convinced they had played all that well at times.

That might seem a bit picky given their perfect season but the essence of the All Blacks is they find gripes almost regardless. It is their way never to be content, to search for more, and they felt their work at the breakdown was exposed on the end-of season tour.

They had some concerns with their running lines and timing on that trip, conscious that courage, extreme fitness and individual brilliance saw them through more than collective excellence.

So they will run out at Eden Park on Saturday with a focus on finding five per cent more than they delivered at their best last year. The patterns and intent will be largely the same. There might be some new starter plays and the odd innovation but the All Blacks of 2014won't be discernibly different to the All Blacks of 2013.

That should extend to personnel. Coach Steve Hansen has taken a conservative approach to previous June tests, relying heavily on his experienced core to steer the team through.

There has been a veiled suggestion the All Blacks might break from that blueprint for the opening game of this series, given England won't have access to their full squad due to their club final being played early this morning.

It is hard to see that being the case, though. It's more likely the All Blacks will look to the third test, if they have the series in the bag, to make changes and introduce new or younger players.

The only areas of contention for the opening test selection sit in the loose trio and back three.

The No 6 jersey should go to Liam Messam as the incumbent, despite the fact Jerome Kaino has possibly delivered more compelling Super Rugby performances. One of Cory Jane, Ben Smith, Israel Dagg and Julian Savea has to miss out.

Jane is the probable casualty in the first game, the others having been first choice selections for much of last year.

- Herald on Sunday

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