Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: All Blacks bench will set a stern test

Even veteran All Black Jerome Kaino says he is surprised by the step up from Super Rugby to test level in the first match against Wales at Eden Park. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Even veteran All Black Jerome Kaino says he is surprised by the step up from Super Rugby to test level in the first match against Wales at Eden Park. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Having made a major impact in Auckland, the All Blacks bench will this week again be tasked with turning the final quarter into an intensely painful 20 minutes for Wales.

Wales are at the end of a long, hard Northern Hemisphere season and will almost certainly struggle to find the energy they need to take their game to a higher level in Wellington.

Their players have been on the go since last August and as the All Blacks know, it is a challenge to be mentally and physically strong in the final two weeks of the season.

Wales were showing signs last week that they don't have much left. Most of their starting players wilted in the last quarter and their bench didn't make much, if any, impact.

The All Blacks sense they will be facing a side battling the early on-set of fatigue and are conscious that once again, the opportunities to seriously damage Wales may open up in the last 10-15 minutes.

"Games are won in the last half," says All Blacks prop Wyatt Crockett, who was one of many who came off the bench and made his presence felt in the 39-21 victory.

"We all want to start, there is no hiding behind that, we want to be the first one out there. But at the same time, we know we have got a really important role because generally the tough test matches are won in that last half hour."

Patience is becoming the critical virtue in test football. The opening weekend of June tests delivered three high tempo, intense games that saw definitive changes in momentum in the final 20 minutes.

This is becoming a typical pattern between tier one nations " they play hard and fast for 60 minutes and then the game changes shape when fatigue sets in and the benches are sent into the fray.

At Eden Park, the All Blacks didn't quite capitalise on their final quarter dominance. Much of that was due to the fact they, too, were struggling at times with the pace " a consequence of not having played test rugby since the World Cup final.

Even veteran flanker Jerome Kaino was caught out: "I was surprised by the step up from Super Rugby to test level," he said.

"You can prepare as much as you can, do all the running you can, but there is no substitute for getting out there and doing it.

"It is tough especially at test level. The first half is usually quite intense and then you come out after half time and try to find a point of difference. For us, we like to see that as our bench that is the point of difference. They come on and push the team through that final 15 minutes. When you get guys coming on " like Crocky [Crockett] and Patrick [Tuipulotu] - and inject a bit of energy and voice, it kind of gets you past that 'this is hard' feeling, that hump. And it's a huge boost for us guys who start the game and who are still in there for the final quarter."

Given the importance of sustaining the tempo and intensity, the All Blacks may look to tinker with their bench. They may revert to their World Cup strategy of not having a specialist lock on the bench and having Elliot Dixon or Liam Squire join Ardie Savea on the pine instead.

And in the backs, given how sharp he's looked in Super Rugby, Israel Dagg may come in for Seta Tamanivalu.

- NZ Herald

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