Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Steve Hansen's boys battle-hard

The All Blacks, including Aaron Cruden, will have had the right mix of game time and opportunity to rest ahead of the first Rugby Championship test in Sydney. Photo / Getty Images
The All Blacks, including Aaron Cruden, will have had the right mix of game time and opportunity to rest ahead of the first Rugby Championship test in Sydney. Photo / Getty Images

Half his squad have been around the world and back in the last two weeks and had chunks taken out of them in pressure knockout games, but All Blacks coach Steve Hansen wouldn't want to swap his preparation lot with Wallabies opposite Michael Cheika.

Whatever is said publicly, the All Blacks will feel the last few weeks have worked out well for them - and could be considered almost perfect if the Hurricanes can win Saturday's Super Rugby final and build on the confidence and feel-good that will come with it.

With the exception of hooker Dane Coles, the All Blacks have avoided injuries, exposed nearly all their squad to top-class rugby and seen their key men, other than Julian Savea, build their form.

The bulk of Hansen's squad - 26 players - were involved in the quarter-finals. Another 18 played in the semifinals and five, if Coles is passed fit and Savea makes it onto the field in some capacity, will play in the final. That's about the perfect ratio for the All Blacks - the right mix of game time, opportunity to rest and chance to bring most of the squad into camp this week, before all 32 play the so-called game of three halves next Friday and fly to Sydney on Sunday August 14 for a full week of preparation before the first Bledisloe test.

This compares with the Wallabies who had just one team in the playoffs (Brumbies), seven of whom are contenders to play against the All Blacks. The squad doesn't officially come into camp until August 8 but the bulk of their 36-man party have been training together at their respective provincial bases since the middle of July.

Having such an extended period of uninterrupted preparation led Hansen to say when asked about the threat the Wallabies posed: "It's farcical to think they [Australia] won't turn up and create a tremendous competition in this Rugby Championship [despite their Super Rugby form].

"Australia have got four weeks to prepare for the first test, we've got a week by the time we get everyone there, so that's an advantage. They've brought some quality men back from overseas and they've also got a quality coach coming in from New Zealand by the name of Mick Byrne, so that will enhance them as well."

Whatever coaches say about the value of having the whole squad together to train for weeks ahead of a test, there's no better preparation than tough, competitive matches. Players learn more by playing big games than they ever do on the training ground.

The Wallabies will have all the time they need to develop a deeper understanding of their game plan and build a sense of unity and purpose. They will be able to work combinations in training, get the timing of their setpiece right and understand across the team where they want to be playing their rugby on the field.

But as much as a prolonged training window is a blessing, it's also a curse. Players typically relish a couple of weeks off playing at this time of year, but not necessarily a month. That much time without a game becomes counter-productive. It drains the players mentally to do so much training without the release of playing.

And that's the danger for the Wallabies here. A huge number of them will come into the first Rugby Championship clash having not played for five weeks. The timing falls away not playing for that long. The ability to react slows as players have fallen out of the habit of seeing the cues in their opposition.

Hansen is right, Australia will be competitive - fiercely so - but they would have been an even greater worry if more of them had greater exposure to the Super Rugby playoffs.

- NZ Herald

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