Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: How the All Blacks continue to separate themselves from the competition

All Blacks Aaron Smith and Dane Coles, two of the best players in the world in their positions, received a very public reminder that they didn't reach expectations when replaced early in the last weekend's test against Argentina in Hamilton.

Behind the scenes, the expectations are set on the training pitch and it is here that Steve Hansen's team are determined to work harder, and smarter, than any other nation. It's here, too, that new levels are being reached.

The All Blacks' dominance - they are on a 14-test winning streak, have won the last two World Cups and are stretching their lead as the top-ranked team in the world seemingly by the week - has not come easy.

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Fitness is a large component of their success. That's how they consistently finish over the top of teams in the final quarter of a test and it comes from hard work and a constant striving for improvement.

lock Brodie Retallick said today trainer Nic Gill was pushing them like never before.

"The workouts are not too different, the times we're trying to get are just quicker," Retallick said after his side trained in bright sunshine at the Linwood Rugby Club before their test against South Africa on Saturday. "Say one exercise was one minute 10 seconds two years ago, now we're pushing to do it in a minute. [Gill] is just pushing the boundaries and we're working harder to get there. I guess that's all slowly adding up."

The All Blacks have traditionally worked hard on getting to their feet after making a tackle or hitting a ruck and that remains a focus. On the ground they are out of the game, but off it they are in the defensive line ready to make another tackle or supporting a teammate who has made a break.

The All Blacks continue to set the standard in world rugby in 2016. Photo / Jason Oxenham
The All Blacks continue to set the standard in world rugby in 2016. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Israel Dagg, who has had to overcome serious leg and shoulder injuries over the past few years but has forced his way back through hard work - both physical and mental - said: "When we get a week off people might think we just go home and chill out but it's a lot of running and a lot of exercises and we're training pretty hard on our own. The boys have got a lot of trust [that the work is done]. We get worked pretty hard, and it's beneficial.

"They don't have cameras, they don't check up on us. It's a no-brainer, you go out there and do it. If you don't, you're not going to perform, you're not going to be in the right place for your mate."

The sight of props Owen Franks and Wyatt Crockett donning padded upper body suits and knocking each other on to a large blue inflatable pad at training today probably didn't surprise many observers, but the way halfback Smith was similarly tackling Beauden Barrett might have.

It was another indication of the All Blacks' standards and what they are expecting from the Springboks - a physical, direct approach from a team on a two-test losing streak and who were probably encouraged by the ground the Pumas made through the middle of the breakdown at Waikato Stadium.

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"As this year rolls on, the opposition are going to know more about us," assistant coach Ian Foster said. "They're getting better whoever we play, and certainly while the Springboks have had a couple of losses I still think that with time together under a new coaching group and new combinations they will improve. So we have to get better, we know that.

"We're making sure that our focus is on our improvement and making sure we don't get complacent with our own levels.

"We're winning and everyone's patting us on the back, but it takes hard work and it takes weekly hard work. The minute you slacken off for a couple of days it goes."

Asked about the last time the Boks played the All Blacks - the tense 20-18 World Cup semifinal victory at Twickenham in late October, Foster said: "I remember it well."

The All Blacks will, too. They average 40 points in their three Rugby Championship victories but are preparing to expend a great deal of hard-earned energy to get another at AMI Stadium.

- NZ Herald

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