Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Samoa put squeeze on Cup preparations

The All Black coaches are treading a fine line between keeping players fresh and giving them enough game time before next year’s World Cup, writes Gregor Paul.

Steve Hansen. Photo / Getty Images
Steve Hansen. Photo / Getty Images

The All Blacks are putting the final touches on their World Cup preparations which will see them play a midweek test in Samoa, a truncated Rugby Championship and a second Bledisloe encounter.

The key aim of their build-up is to expose themselves to adversity amid concerns they have again been handed a soft pool that will include Argentina, Tonga, Georgia and Namibia after the Africans qualified last weekend.

It was that desire to be taken out of their comfort zone which was partly behind the decision to play in Apia - most likely on Wednesday, July 8. A test at Apia Park will provide the All Blacks with an emotionally-charged, high quality opponent at a venue which will be rustic in comparison with those they typically encounter.

The coaching panel want the players to get used to encountering things they wouldn't normally, believing that will be important come the World Cup knockout rounds.

The senior players also felt that playing in Samoa was the right thing to do - an appropriate way to acknowledge the huge contribution the Islands have made to the game in New Zealand.

An agreement in principle was reached many weeks ago but the difficulty in signing off the test has been with the specifics - finding a date that works for both parties.

Super Rugby's 2015 final is scheduled for July 4 with the All Blacks opening the Rugby Championship against Argentina on July 18. Confirmation is expected in the next few weeks but the All Blacks have asked to play the game midweek to maximise their preparation time for the Pumas clash. The All Blacks will fly to South Africa immediately after to play the Springboks on July 25.

They will have a bye week on August 1 and then back-to-back fixtures against the Wallabies on August 8 and 15 - the second game, however, will not be part of the Rugby Championship.

It's probable that due to the Samoa test's proximity to the Super Rugby final, any New Zealand players involved will travel to Apia but not necessarily play.

There will be a five-week gap between the second Bledisloe clash and the All Blacks' opening World Cup fixture at Wembley on September 20-a gap which they may look to fill with training games against provincial opposition.

World Cup preparation has been a fraught and challenging business for the All Blacks at recent tournaments. They have been guilty of over-thinking it, most notably in 2007, when they tried their mass conditioning programme only to exit in the quarter-finals.

What they have worried about most in the past is striking the right balance between keeping players fresh and allowing them enough game time to be at peak form and fitness at the tournament.

Steve Hansen, head coach of Wales in 2003 and All Blacks assistant in 2007 and 2011, has the experience to know where the potential pitfalls lie in terms of preparation.

The first hurdle to be cleared next year will be ensuring that Super Rugby coaches have an understanding of each potential All Black's playing and workload expectations. With Super Rugby starting a week earlier than usual, some All Blacks may not be available for the first few games, while others may benefit from not being overused later in the tournament.

Hansen has worked hard since he took over in 2012 on fostering communication with Super Rugby coaches and collaborative management of individuals. Each All Black, and those considered to be potential test players, have individual high performance development plans and mostly there is little friction between Hansen and the franchise coaches on how to best manage players during Super Rugby.

World Cup year is not expected to be much different. But with no June tests and no in-season training camps as there have been the past three years, the All Black coaching team may want to be in more regular and closer dialogue with franchises to keep a tight handle on how players are tracking physically and mentally.

The other big concern for the All Blacks is the competitiveness or lack of, in their pool. They have landed one of the weaker Tier One nations in Argentina and three Tier Two fixtures with Namibia in particular likely to offer little in the way of meaningful resistance. The same thing happened in 2007 when New Zealand walloped Italy, drilled Portugal, cruised past Scotland who fielded their second team and then hammered Romania.

The jump in intensity the following week was major and the All Blacks felt they had been disadvantaged coming into the knockout rounds having encountered only token opposition. Ahead of their game against Portugal, the IRB even asked them to go easy in the scrums, such were the fears of serious injury being inflicted.

With Ireland and Argentina in their pool that year, the French were battle-hardened when they came to Cardiff. In 2015, Wales, England and Australia are in the same group, France and Ireland have Italy in their pool, while South Africa will be challenged by Samoa and Scotland. The five pre-World Cup tests are therefore going to be critical in hardening and honing the All Blacks.

- Herald on Sunday

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